What Do You Mean, Happy New Year?
We just passed New Year’s Eve 2012. Someone said, “Happy New Year!” My first question was, what do you mean by that?
What, indeed, is a year? The stock answers are mathematical. Numbers can sound precise, but I say, be careful when people respond to an inquiry by stating numbers. It could be a dodge. Like, if you ask someone, “Do I weigh too much?” and they say, “Well, you weigh 287 pounds,” this has a certain evasive feel. They have not actually answered the question. Best to follow up for clarification: “Could you be more specific?”
When you do get into the specifics, sure enough, you find that things are not as they seem. People might say that a year is 12 months, about 52 weeks, 365 or 366 days. But that’s not always true. The calendar for the year 1582 contains only about 355 days. And in the Chinese calendar, most years are like that.
No matter which calendar you use, your first and last years of life are likely to be short, unless you just happen to be born and/or die at exactly the right moment on New Year’s Eve. Every year is the first or last year for someone. If, now, at the end of 2012, you were to ask a baby born on December 21, 2012 whether s/he felt that 2012 was a short year, s/he would not understand you. Please, if you want conversation, give the baby some time to prepare. But if, by magic, a 10-day-old baby were ready to philosophize about years, s/he would have to say that 2012 was the shortest year ever.
Or, then again, probably not. When you’ve lived only 10 days, every one must seem tremendous. It must feel like nearly an eternity. It takes a while to reach this adult condition, in which the time just zips on by. For a little kid, a year could be a quarter or a third of everything you have ever experienced. It’s a big deal. It feels like a miracle that a person can hang on that long, to see another one come around. Whereas for a busy person in middle age, a year is usually about how long it takes to get something done.
There is also the telescoping problem, where a year contains the majority of what seems important. Recent events tend to feel more significant and time-consuming than long-past events. To an adult in middle age, the years of elementary school were when you learned basic math and spelling and had some friends. It seems like something that you should have been able to get done in a couple of parties and a handful of focused study sessions. But the meeting last week in which the boss humiliated you in front of everyone – well, that just dragged on and on. If you are a retiree, however, it can be the other way around. I have noticed this. For some retirees, most of what was important in their lives happened by the time they were 25 or 30. Everything after that was just filler.
You might say that a year is like a war. It is an abstraction. You really don’t have any idea what the abstraction means until you get into the details. “World War II” is just a term that appears on a page. What counts about it is what individuals experienced, in Hiroshima or the battle of Stalingrad or on a tank assembly line in Detroit. Some of that was shooting, but a lot of it was illness and boredom and encounters with alien cultures. So, you see, Detroit hasn’t changed.
As noted above, we do have numbers to define a year – 12 months, 365 days, and so forth – but they don’t really say much. More to the point, you might characterize a year as a bucket that holds a certain amount of joy and grief. Not all of it, else there wouldn’t be any left for other years. Each must have its share. In this sense, a year seems to be an experience allocation scheme: it must have some sore muscles and sleepiness, maybe some dental pain and intoxication and euphoria, some reading and some writing and some running out of money. The details vary, but in defense of those retirees I was just describing, you really do get the basic picture by the time you’ve done it 20 or 30 times.
When someone wishes me a happy new year, maybe they are admitting that, yes, the year will have a mix of experiences like those just mentioned – but perhaps my mix, this time around, will be better than average. Like, if I had 30% happiness last year, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to hope that I would have more in the range of 35% to 45% happiness this year. One can’t be unrealistic, and shouldn’t be greedy, but maybe God or the universe or my boss could see fit to cut me some slack in the next 12 months.
If that’s what they mean then, of course, it is a kind and worthy sentiment. But such wishes would be insincere if not backed by action. When your boss sends you a nice card that says, “Happy Holidays,” I think you should hold him/her to it. New Year’s is one of those holidays, and as we have just seen, a wish for a happy New Year seems to imply some favorable treatment. So, come July, when the boss is giving you a hard time, I believe it would be appropriate to take out that Happy Holidays card and show it to him/her. You wished me a happy New Year, right? Well, we’re in it. I’m looking for some of that happiness right now.
A more modest interpretation would say that the person is not wishing you a happy year; they’re just wishing you a happy *new* year. A happy start. The boss gives you January 1 off, but that’s as far as it carries. May the first day of this new cycle be happy – but after that, you’re on your own.
And then there’s the whole problem of what happiness is anyway. It could be awareness – of, say, how good I’ve got it, compared to the misery that others are experiencing. Or, just the opposite, it could be ignorance, like when a person settles into a fuzzy, warm feeling, oblivious to whatever may be going on outside of his/her family or self. And is it a deep, enduring orientation (I’m trying, here, to imagine what it must be like to be an optimist)? Or is it, rather, a frothy experience of the moment? According to one old song, happiness is different things to different people: to the preacher, it is “prayer, prayer, prayer,” whereas to the Beatles, it was “yeah, yeah, yeah” – which the Beatles corrected with an indication that, actually, happiness is a warm gun. I would say they were just trying to be controversial to sell records, but many people agree with them. The more guns we have, the happier we all become. Maybe happiness is just whatever makes you feel good. If you want the very picture of happiness, you can’t go wrong with the lion, ripping apart the carcass of a zebra.
So we have some unknowns. “Happy New Year” seems to be one of those incompletely conceptualized holiday expressions, like “God Bless America” on the Fourth of July. Do they mean they hope that God will bless America? Is it a prayer? It sure doesn’t sound like one, when they say it: it sounds more like, America is a great place and God realizes this. Or Groundhog Day: yes, six more weeks of winter if the groundhog sees its shadow. But what if it doesn’t? Has winter ever ended in February? In the realm of holiday significance, what we need is more Thanksgivings. Simply being thankful, or giving thanks – now, this is something that a person can figure out.
In this post, I have made some efforts to figure it out; but I still don’t quite know what “Happy New Year” means, or what people want it to mean. I guess if they wanted it to mean anything in particular, they would pause and clarify. “Happy New Year, insofar as you get your act together and stop being such a screwup.” “Happy New Year, especially with regard to your recent efforts to stave off financial catastrophe.” It does seem to express a positive sentiment, but without any specific content that could offend or be misconstrued.
And maybe that’s the point. I don’t want to argue with you, I don’t want to say anything to hurt your feelings, so for real safety I’m going to go with adages and trite phrases, like “Happy New Year” and “Have a good day.” Maybe the real message of “Happy New Year” is, we need more vapid utterances that nobody can misunderstand or disagree with. I seem to have come into contact with you; it seems I should say something; so, seizing on the occasion, let me join with the crowd and wish you:
Happy New Year!
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Tags: expression, happy, holiday, humor, January 1, language, meaning, new year