Counting Down to the New Year

We, as human beings, are known to do some pretty odd things.

Just like the rest of the natural world, we as a species exhibit certain behaviors and rituals that are exclusive to our race alone. We gasp spastically when we find something to be amusing. We clap our palms together to show appreciation. We move around in metal boxes on wheels. And due to the repetition of habit, along with the apparent popularity of such customs, we often fail to recognize the peculiar nature of these practices, as seen from a detached and unbiased standpoint.

Yet if we were to take the time to step back, we would be able to recognize just how strange many of these traditions truly are.

And the celebration of New Years is definitely among them.

Ten … nine … eight …

Think about it. Billions of people all around the world, literally watching as time ticks by, waiting for the clock to strike midnight — a commonplace event that occurs without falter 365 times a year.

All this for a holiday that is in itself not even an actual day. It is a fleeting moment in time, a celebration of the transition between one second to another — and then it’s over.

Major cities all across the globe, from Sydney to New York, invest millions of dollars into such extravagant festivities. Dazzling firework shows are prepared, A-list celebrities come out to perform, and nearly everything else seems to be put on hold — all for a split second in time.

Seven. Six. Five.

What’s more is that the calendar itself is a man-made creation. The day, the month, the year — these are all units of measurement, manufactured by human beings to better estimate the passage of so-called “time.” This makes the segue from December 31 to January 1 an entirely synthetic phenomenon.

And yet year after year, we continue to commemorate this artificial occurrence. We gather the family, light up the fireplace, and put on our silly hats as we feverishly chant down the final seconds.

Four! Three! Two! One!

The night sky erupts in colorful explosion, champagne bottles pop open in blissful fountains, and lovers share a passionate kiss. Happy New Years.

The world does not even celebrate this momentary incident at the same time. The ball in Times Square drops three hours before Disneyland gets to fire off their many rockets. Beijing is already half a day into the new year before a single strand of confetti is allowed to fall in the States.

And yet it does not seem to matter.

Despite the oddity of this spectacle, people of all different races and faiths and nationalities continue to rejoice together every year at the change of the clock, as the old steps aside for the new.

Because as you delve back into the holiday itself, beneath the peculiarities and extravagance, there lies a celebration that is so pure and human at its core. For it is a celebration, not of some religiously exclusive event or immortal being that may or may not exist, but rather of a simple and universally significant phenomenon.

It is something that all people, regardless of where they are from or what they believe, are affected by. It is a ritualized moment of reflection and simultaneously an opportunity for — sometimes unreasonable — expectation. It is not just the celebration of a passing year. It is the celebration of passing time.

Time — that is something that even the most cynical or ignorant of beings cannot escape. It is the reason why New Years is the disproportionately excessive festival that it is. Because time is something that cannot be stopped or controlled. It moves on whether we want it to or not, and in this day and age, when man has conquered nearly every aspect of the physical world, time is one of the few that remain elusive.

And I think that is why we celebrate it. Just as many of us worship our respective gods, whom we consider to be all-powerful, New Years is our tribute to another omnipotent force, but one whose existence cannot be disputed — the perpetual tick of the clock.

The various “traditions” that we make an occasion of on this special night, in fact, are actually romanticized forms of day-to-day tasks.

We make resolutions every day of our lives. “I will do my homework tomorrow.” “I will buy some milk in an hour.” “I will do the dishes.” And as upsetting as it may be, our mere existence is one big countdown of sorts as well.

So it is on New Year’s Day that we decided to make a holiday of it. To commemorate the inevitable passage of time, to set ridiculous goals that we had never dreamed of achieving, to toast on the past and show irrational optimism for the future.

Humans are strange beings. We display behaviors and tendencies that are sometimes incomprehensible, even to ourselves, and yet are in this way, characteristically human. And true to this nature, we demonstrate a proclivity to glorify that which we cannot control and sentimentalize what we cannot contain. And so with illuminating flashes overhead and our cheers pervading the night air, we continue to pay tribute to one of the greatest holidays of all — new year after new year after new year.

Benjamin Hong is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at bshong@uci.edu.