Holiday blues and greens
December 30, 2010
The week between Christmas and New Year’s has long been for me a time of increasing sadness. The feeling goes back, I suppose, to the childhood malaise when all the presents have been opened, explored, exhausted, their magic reduced to mundanity, and a new trove of toys can’t be expected until one’s birthday. Partly, too, it’s the letdown after any big festivity, especially one accompanied by too much food.
Yet by the time I’d reached my thirties, I was also sensing a difference in character between the two holidays that bookend the Ameri-Christian winter celebration. For all its commercialization, Christmas remains a family day, when you hug relatives you barely remember and enjoy the warmth of an extended clan along with Aunt Kay’s mince, apple, pumpkin, and lemon meringue pies. (How did she ever bake so many?) New Year’s Eve, in contrast, is the quintessential party/dating time, the night of silly noisemakers when we get dressed up, get drunk, and strive to get laid. For a wallflower who was terrible at drinking and partying, the choice was clear. Christmas I loved; New Year’s I detested. All those people having fun on New Year’s—I looked down my bumpy, nerdy nose at them.
Moreover, to the extent that my secular soul could be moved by religious images and music, I always found the tale of Christ’s birth and death haunting and poignant, and this added to my enjoyment of Christmas. New Year’s was empty revelry, with no redeeming content. Party hats, streamers—bah, humbug.
Recently it occurred to me that Judaism puts its important days in a better order. The High Holy Days in the fall start with the New Year and slide inexorably toward Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, so that, in a sense, you end the holiday season on a downer. But it’s a meaningful downer, and after fasting, confessing, and perhaps participating in all five traditional prayer services, you should feel enlightened and unburdened. Unlike Christians, who exit the holidays with a hangover.
In an attempt to bring a serious note into New Year’s, then, I’ll quote from my favorite Christian holiday lyrics, which mix Christmas and New Year’s references in a philosophical blend. In his review of a recent Piffaro concert, Tom Purdom mentioned how much he admired these sixteenth-century verses. To the tune of Greensleeves:
The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is enterèd;
Then let us now our sins downtread,
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this day,
And let us all both sport and play.
Hang grief, cast care away.
God send you a happy new year!
The name day now of Christ we keep,
Who for our sins did often weep.
His hands and feet were wounded deep,
And his blessèd side, with a spear.
His head they crowned with thorn,
And at him they did laugh and scorn,
Who for our good was born.
God send us a happy New Year!
And now with New Year’s gifts each friend
Unto each other they do send;
God grant we may all our lives amend,
And that the truth may appear.
Now, like the snake, your skin
Cast off of evil thoughts and sin,
And so the year begin:
God send you a happy new year!