There is probably no holiday more boring than New Year’s Day.
There is probably no holiday more boring than New Year’s Day. If New Year’s Eve is up there with Christmas, then New Year’s Day is more closely equivalent to more mundane holidays. You might get the day off work, but otherwise, there’s not much going on. Most people celebrate January 1st by sleeping off the effects of making whoopee on December 31st. The only popular New Year’s Day tradition I know of is the much-maligned practice of making New Year’s resolutions. And until relatively recently, it seemed like most people regarded resolutions as useless, almost harmful in their capacity to provoke feelings of guilt and failure. But I’ve come to rely on them, especially since I learned how to keep my resolutions simple, and therefore realistic.
When I was a child, Christmas was also a disruption. Like the snow, it brought the settled routine of all our lives to a halt.
New Year’s Day is now my favorite holiday, filling a slot that’s been vacant for 23 years, ever since I soured on Christmas back in middle school. But almost all of the traditions we associate with the changing of the year — formalwear parties, tippling champagne, kissing at midnight, the countdown to the ball drop in Times Square (or the giant acorn in Moore Square, if you’re from Raleigh) — are part of New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day is relatively unadorned by festivities in comparison, although some of my fellow southerners “celebrate” by eating collard greens and black-eyed peas. I can’t stand greens or peas, personally, so I can’t vouch for the theory that eating them on January 1st will bring you good luck and financial prosperity in the coming year. I can vouch for the fact that binge-watching British panel shows like QI and Big Fat Quiz of the Year, eating port wine cheese balls with fancy crackers, and reading through the notes in my Good Things Jar makes me happy and optimistic for the year to come.
Eight years ago, I decided to claim New Year’s Day for myself after I passed a disappointing first Christmas alone in my apartment.
I’d thought that getting some distance from the simmering tensions that ran under the surface of my family’s holiday gatherings would enable me to reconnect with the feeling I’d had as a child. The feeling that there was something genuinely magical about Christmas, that it was a special time of year (for reasons not strictly related to the giving and receiving of presents). But that year, even though I cooked Christmas dinner with all my favorite side dishes, drank an entire bottle of Welch’s sparkling red grape juice, and watched A Muppet Christmas Carol by the light of my 3’ Christmas tree, I found myself heaving a little sigh of discontent when the clock ticked over to 12:01 on December 26th. Something had been lacking. Whatever it was that made Christmas feel special when I was a kid, I hadn’t quite managed to evoke it.
But then New Year’s Day came. I made my very first list of resolutions. Every time I looked up from my desk and out the window, I could see the snow blanketing the ground outside. The vista of clean, white blankness settled over my mind like a weighted blanket. I felt insulated, protected. Because it snows so rarely in eastern North Carolina, even a trifling amount of the white stuff can bring city life to a screeching halt. Stores shut down, drivers panic, cars literally burst into flame. If you’re at home when it snows, you’re snowbound until it melts. But there’s something marvelously freeing about being snowbound. It allows you to ignore every external obligation, without having to feel guilty, or fear other people’s judgment. Where snow is a rarity, snow is always a disruption.
At some point, as I stared out my window, watching my cat paw futilely at the glass while a pair of cardinals hopped around in the snow, it clicked. When I was a child, Christmas was also a disruption. Like the snow, it brought the settled routine of all our lives to a halt. I got out of school. My parents used their vacation days for the year and took a week off from work so we could visit our extended family in Kentucky. Being stuck in the backseat of a car for 10 hours during the drive from Raleigh to Lexington felt not unlike being snowbound. So did being stuck at my grandmother’s house for a week with nothing to do all day until my cousins came over for a couple of hours before dinner. In Raleigh, the snow never lasted long enough for cabin fever to set in, but I was usually ready to climb the walls by the time we left Kentucky. The sense of restriction and confinement only contributed to the feeling that Christmas was somehow set apart. It was as if we dared not go back to our regular lives until the solemnity of the season had been appropriately observed.
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No wonder I couldn’t recreate that feeling during Christmas as an adult. You can only have that kind of experience when you’re a child, a time when other people meet all your needs and make all your decisions for you. Adults who function in the world know that, even if most stores close on Christmas Day, the world around us doesn’t stop for anything. Worse: we can’t stop. We have bills to pay, deadlines to meet, emails to answer.
On that snowbound New Year’s Day in 2009, I realized that, for me, the month of January is itself one long pause — like a deep breath before the plunge into the months ahead.
I think I’ve always felt that way because my birthday falls near the end of January. I am the same age for all but 22 days of the year — and during those 22 days, while I’m waiting for my number to roll over, nothing really counts. I might have to work, but I don’t have to accomplish anything. I do have a job ahead of me: my New Year’s resolution, my one big goal for the year. In 2009, I resolved to finish my first novel, and by the end of May, I had a completed manuscript. I treasure these weeks in early January when I can feel excited about my project for the year without feeling guilty that I haven’t done it yet. On New Year’s Day, I finally feel capable of giving myself a break. That’s holiday magic for grown-ups.