A New Year's Eve State of Mind

By A. S. Lirik (Arn Riklis), translated by Ri J. Turner

Published in Haynt (Today), 3 January 1936, Warsaw

It’s a good thing that New Year’s Eve comes right on the heels of Christmas.

During the Christmas season, the entire Christian world, which operates at such a remove from the true spirit of Christianity, immerses itself in exalted ideas about God, love, and peace. The church bells ring hoarsely, announcing the Good News of Christ’s birth, and every year the priests pontificate and the newspapers preach universal love and the spirit of brotherhood, and all of it is a bitter mockery, in sharp contrast with the real world of struggle, hate, and fratricide.  

After all that “love” and “peace,” the New Year’s celebration is truly refreshing. New Year’s has nothing to do with religion. No preaching, no attempts to bamboozle, no demands for eternal love or eternal peace. It’s a simple secular celebration, and people just want to rejoice, drown their sorrows in drink, and bid a festive farewell to the old year.

Of course, New Year’s Eve is also a collective delusion, and only the truly naive can convince themselves that when the clocks strike twelve the old year disappears and a new, utterly different year begins. After New Year’s, the complaints usually start up—once the lethargic fog of drunkenness dissipates, people begin to notice that the new year isn’t in the least better or more beautiful than the old one. All the sweet declarations of love delivered on New Year’s Eve are suddenly nowhere to be found. All the poor lost sheep who “wandered” into other people’s bedrooms on New Year’s Eve have to go back home now, and our dear Moniek, who repeats the same quip every year—“I wish you a good year; may we both be blessed with a year as good as the year I wish for you”—even Moniek with his paper top hat, two-penny balloons in his hand, and confetti all over him must return to boring, prosaic real life. But at least on New Year’s Eve there are no manipulations about “God, love, and peace”—it’s all play, worldly carousing, a time when people want to feel hopeful and convince themselves that everything will change, everything will look different in the new year.  

Only relentlessly grouchy moralists can complain about the fact that on New Year’s Eve so much money is spent on empty foolishness and everyone forgets about the bitter poverty, the current crisis, and other troubles. What harm does it do if once a year people have a little innocent fun and trick each other into cultivating false hopes and illusions?  

There’s a story going around that this New Year’s, in one of the better Warsaw venues, a high official from the tax office ran into one of his victims, a Jewish merchant. This official has been driving a persistent, long-standing campaign against the merchant, who once was rich but was recently ruined. The official doesn’t believe the merchant is as poor as he claims to be—he keeps trying to convince him that he still possesses large sums—whereas the merchant, for his part, has been conducting a counter-offensive and refuses to be driven up against the wall. This time the tax official caught his victim in a good mood, drinking a bottle of wine and surrounded by dressed-up ladies, and he, faithful servant of the state, made a scene: “Is this any way to cheat the government? Is this the way to convince me that you’re poor and have no means? You celebrate on New Year’s Eve, but you don’t have any money to pay taxes? We’ll see about that tomorrow; you’ll have me to reckon with . . .” Should we all be like that grumpy tax collector and begrudge the little people their little pleasures, their little celebrations, and their paper balloons?

Obviously, the whole matter of the old and the new year is nothing more than a symbol, a flight of fancy, a human illusion. In general, the calendar is entirely relative. The Hindus, the Chinese, the Jews have completely different calendars from the Christian world, and the Hitlerists are walking around with the idea of introducing a totally new calendar for Germany: according to them, the history of mankind and the history of Germany began not with the birth of Christ but on the day when the great “Führer” gave the Germans his new bible . . .

It’s even possible to become quite a bit younger by taking a different approach to the calendar. One of the most curious clubs in America, the “Twelve-Year-Old Fifty-Somethings Club,” has already mastered the art of reclaiming lost youth: the club is made up of people who were lucky enough to be born on the 29th of February, in a leap year. And since leap years take place approximately every five years [sic], it works out that anyone born on the 29th of February is “actually” approximately five times younger, so if they’re usually considered to be fifty-something, according to their calculations they’re no more than ten or twelve years old, still little schoolchildren . . .

And what is the thing we call “history,” after all? Is it any more than a symbol, an illusion, a relative calculation? The ingenious pessimistic philosopher Spengler concluded that “history” is an empty word, a delusion, because history does not run in a straight line the way we generally imagine but rather in zigzags and with periodic repetitions, and in fact, nothing happens, there is no “forward” and no “backward,” and what we call history is similar to a kind of gramophone record, which spins continuously, ends and starts over again from the beginning, and only fools believe that they’re moving forward and living within history . . .

Luckily, not everyone is a clever, pessimistic philosopher like Spengler, and a normal person knows that not only is history a concrete concept but he himself, a human being, is contributing to the history of the world. And the average person does not want to hear that a year is nothing more than a ridiculous concept, a brief intake of air with respect to eternity, and that from an infinite perspective, the entire division of time into years is senseless. The average person will not stop believing that he is in motion, that his short, insignificant life consists of past, present, and future; he celebrates anniversaries and yahrzeits and convinces himself that the old year and the new year exist and that every new year truly offers entirely new hopes and possibilities. Should the human being, with his short life and his small intellect, be an object of scorn due to his artificial concept of time, and should we begrudge him his few cheerful illusions?

In Germany there’s an old custom of filling nine out of ten of the famous New Year’s Eve pastries with jam and every tenth pastry with plain old soap. This year, according to the German radio announcer, this playful trick was taken to extremes, and bakers gave themselves license to fill not every tenth but every fourth or fifth pastry with soap . . . In general, the amount of jam is decreasing and the amount of soap and soap bubbles is increasing, not only in Germany but throughout the entire world. But people want to allow themselves to be fooled once again, and every year on New Year’s Eve, the world drinks a toast, and people convince themselves that a whole new era is beginning. “We don’t even care if it’s worse, as long as it’s different.”