New Year’s Day is the most depressing of holidays. It doesn’t celebrate anyone or anything worth celebrating. It simply marks the passage from one year to the next, something so predictable and uninteresting that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Yet people see it as a great opportunity to start again, to turn over a new leaf, to make times better and happier than before. It’s an odd moment in which to be optimistic, when the winter is deepening and the debts incurred over Christmas are waiting to be paid. But nothing stops millions from greeting this non-event with wine and song and gaiety as the clock strikes midnight.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated around the world, but in these islands it is especially associated with Scotland, where Hogmanay, as the Scots call it, has always been feasted with great fervour. The Scots may have focused on New Year to compensate for the Presbyterian Church’s refusal to take part in the celebration of Christmas, which it used to regard as a Catholic superstition, but we can’t any longer think about New Year without bagpipes and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and heavy drinking.
It was in Scotland that my dislike of New Year’s Eve began. As a little boy, I used to spend the holidays in Lanarkshire with my grandparents, who would allow my brother, sisters and me to see in the New Year in the nearby town of Biggar. This was meant to be a special treat, but it didn’t feel like one. Biggar was a genteel little town by Scottish standards, but it nevertheless succumbed to the bacchanalia with which Scots like to forget their winter sorrows. I was much frightened by the scenes of drunkenness.
Of course the Scots aren’t the only people who get drunk on New Year’s Eve, and they repent afterwards with New Year resolutions to behave better in future. It seems masochistic to make self-denying resolutions at such an unpropitious time, when painful real life is beginning again after the holidays, but these promises are seldom kept. In particular, resolutions involving diet seem doomed to fail, for Scots are especially prone to obesity.
But every cloud has a silver lining, for it has been established that fat people are happier than thin ones. Scientists have found that thin people are much more anxious and prone to suicide. They say that for every five-kilo increase per square metre on the body mass index the risk of suicide falls by 15 per cent. Eating deep-fried Mars bars may be wiser than we realise.
Much as I dislike the celebration of New Year’s Day, I am pleased nevertheless to see the back of 2016. It has been the most dreadful year, filled with human tragedy and political upheaval. Europe’s stability has been shaken by the huge flood of refugees fleeing from the horrors of the Middle East, as it has been by the referenda in Britain and Italy. One thing leads to another, so that now we even have Donald Trump as President of the United States. These are very unsettling times.
It isn’t as if the New Year is even giving us a fresh start. Time does not divide itself into annual compartments; it just seamlessly rolls along. The year 2017 will just be a continuation of 2016, only probably worse. The same problems will persist, the instability will grow. There will be the Brexit negotiations to contend with and the French and German elections to confront, all of them bringing new uncertainties. And then there will be the unknown price that we will have to pay for making America great again.
There is less than ever to celebrate this New Year. On the contrary, there is a great deal more than usual to worry about. But at the same time there can seldom have been a greater need for us to wish ourselves a very happy new year.