I dread running into people I know at this time of year. The reason for my reluctance is the inevitable question: “Are you doing anything for New Year’s?” The question is stuffed with expectation. After all, New Year’s (formerly New Year’s Eve before people got lazy and clipped off the last word) is supposed to be the Atomic Bomb Mushroom Cloud of parties, the difference between a five star restaurant decked out with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city, and the local McDonald’s. New Year’s is the Big Occasion; if you’re not there, you’re square.
But where did we get this idea? When did people start seeing New Year’s as a mythical Eldorado, a glistening ideal that must be chased but can never quite be caught? Personally, I blame the whole thing on movies that were made during the 1930’s. In a Depression-ravaged country filled with people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, movies were the Great Escape. For a dime, people with holes in their shoes could attend elegant parties and hobnob with the stars (if only through the fantasy of the silver screen). So Hollywood laid it on thick. In glorious black and white everyone looked as luminous as a Greek god. And the Crescendo of musicals, romances, and adventures was New Year’s Eve. All the movie men wore white tie and tails while their women adorned themselves in blindingly glittering gowns. They danced gaily in impossibly glamorous and upscale halls where 25-piece orchestras played lush tunes endlessly. On the stroke of midnight the band belted out Auld Lang Syne, while oceans of shiny balloons and silvery streamers descended on hundreds of impossibly beautiful people passionately engaged in impossibly dazzling kisses.
Whether anyone remembers these movies or not, we’re all still breathing their cultural exhaust. That’s why people ask each other the Big Question. That’s also why the answers are always bound to be disappointing. No white tie and tails. No legions of popping champagne bottles. Maybe a living room populated with ten or fifteen drab people drinking because they feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do. Like the party I once attended dressed in a suit because I was reaching for Fred Astaire in a world of tee shirts and ragged jeans. A drunk guy approached me, and asked me my name and what my job was. Two minutes after I told him he asked me again, and I gave him a different answer. He kept asking, and I kept making stuff up. By the time I walked away, I was Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, a distinction which earned only a casual nod from my inebriated acquaintance.
So the next time you feel let down by “New Year’s” remember whom to blame. Old Hollywood, that moneyed crowd of thin mustaches and penciled eyebrows, is responsible. As I sit there on the evening of 12/31 thinking of ways to evade telling people about my New Year’s, I’ll be wishing that those mythical movie stars had drowned in their glassy balloons. New Year’s? Bah, Humbug!