I keenly remember my first big New Year's celebration. I was 15 or 16, and off to a huge party I'd heard about. I was ready for excitement: babes, loud music and a little alcohol. Maybe even a fight, if the music and mood were suitably intoxicating.
But someone called the police, and the party fizzled out. I have a vivid, embarrassing vision of my evening: dressed to the nines in flannel shirt, Body Count T-shirt and jeans, wandering the streets with 10 or so schoolfriends, trying to find another party. We never did.
Since then, I've been to many different New Year's Eve dinners, parties, drinks. Some expensive, some dirt cheap. Some with work, some with mates. Interestingly, most have had the same atmosphere as that night almost two decades ago: aimlessness, anticlimax, all with a whiff of desperation.
There have been moments of fun, of course, or raucousness, or eroticism, or fellowship. But, on the whole, they were hollow - a party, but not a celebration.
Maybe this is just me - after all, plenty of people, young and old, send off the old year with giddy joy. But if this is true, why is so much of it encouraged and sustained by Dutch courage? Must we be totally maggoted to smile the year away? What is it about cold, hard, sober reality that dampens the festive spark?
One problem is this: we're often not sure why or what we're celebrating. We know the year's ending, but what does this mean? It's not like the next year will be magically different, some new world of achievement and glee. And if it is, it won't be because the calendar has clicked over - it'll be because we've changed, or our circumstances have done so.
In short, the end of the year is a handy time to take stock, but it's meaningless as far as actual change goes. If this year was horrible, next year is unlikely to be different unless we make it so.
This is partly why New Year's events are often not really celebrations - they're obliterations. We get blind to annihilate the shame, disappointment or frustration of the last 52 weeks, not to welcome the next ones.
This is a perfect way to start the next year badly: on a note of amnesia or nausea, and the flight from fact.
Another way to ruin New Year's Eve is the desperate search for the place to be. Many cafes and restaurants have beautiful views, delicious food, fine wine. No doubt some pubs have elegant furnishings or a good atmosphere. It's perfectly reasonable and rewarding to seek what's best in architecture, cuisine and company.
But there's also a strange desire to be ''amongst it'': in some mysterious, secret cosmic centre, where everything is sparkly, shiny and sexy. We imagine only in this nightclub, with this queue of high-heeled people, happiness will be granted. We must book ahead, and reserve the Table of Tables, for this will bring joy. We have to watch this count-down channel, with the right hosts.
But this is so often a let-down, because we aren't really celebrating anything in particular - we are seeking excitement in the polished aura of strangers.
This can be fun and entertaining. But it never quite lives up to the promise of the night: the end of another cycle, the beginning of another. It fails to commemorate the reality of the last year, or to inspire the next.
The problem, then, is irrelevance. So much of the New Year's hype is generic, mass-marketed or anonymous. Anonymity can be exhilarating - being a small part of a humming, pulsing human mass. But we can't expect it to be personally fulfilling. It's indifferent to our private sacrifices, public achievements or family struggles.
What to do? One response might be called bohemian: don't celebrate New Year's. Celebrate the actual events, aspirations or insights that punctuate the year, when they arise. Laud what's wonderful, and lament what's saddening, or aggravating. Try to cultivate what's valuable, rather than obliterating what's burdensome.
There's plenty to choose from: births, deaths, marriages, work milestones and the to-and-fro of relationships. I'd rather celebrate my son reading than the impersonal click of a calendar.
Another response is more Stoic, in the original sense. At day's end, Stoic philosophers would ask: Have I been brave? Have I lied or been cowardly? What have I understood or misinterpreted?
The end of the year is a good chance for this - less intoxication and more interrogation. Hopefully it makes us better, if not our year.
It's not unethical to do the big end-of-year bash. My point is this: if you are suffering a New Year let-down, ditch it for something more ambitious. The flannel shirt is optional.
Damon Young is a philosopher and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free.
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