Of all sounds of all bells, the most solemn and touching
is the peal which rings out the Old Year.
— Charles Lamb
We do get rather nostalgic at the end of a year, on the cusp of a new year. Perhaps we have regrets from the passing year. Perhaps the old year brought losses and grief. Perhaps we have fear at the thought of what the year ahead might bring. Nostalgia just seems to go along with year end and year beginning. I have been known to get teary-eyed during the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in spite of the fact that I had no idea what “Auld Lang Syne” even meant.
Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788. The poem soon became a song that was traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It was a ritual song that gave people a ceremonial way to express the discomfort of ending/beginning as well as to speak of the value of old friendships that should not be forgotten.
Another poem written by Robert W. Service (1874-1957) was entitled “The Passing of the Year.” Its seven poignant stanzas come across as a lament of the passing year, and yet the poet also expresses a juxtaposition between a somber response and an expression of fond farewell. Here are some excerpts:
My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise . . .
And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?
And so from face to face I flit,
The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
Old weary year! it’s time to go.
My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!
As for New Year’s Resolutions, the same poet wrote an expressions of regret in the year past and the resolve inherent in a phrase we know so well: “Just do it.”
Each New Year’s Eve I used to brood
On my misdoings of the past,
And vowed: “This year I’ll be so good –
Well, haply better than the last.”
My record of reforms I read
To Mum who listened sweetly to it:
“Why plan all this, my son?” she said;
“Just do it.”
Of her wise words I’ve often thought –
Aye, sometimes with a pang of pain,
When resolutions come to naught,
And high resolves are sadly vain;
The human heart from failure bleeds;
Hopes may be wrecked so that we rue them . . .
Don’t let us dream of lovely deeds –
Just do them.
Now that I have shared more poetry than you ever wanted to read, let me conclude with this thought: As a new year approaches, we greet it with all the regrets and losses and emotions of the old year still pressing on our spirits. That affects our attitude about the unknown year ahead, and when we look at the path that leads us into 2020, all we see is darkness. It is for us a journey into the unknown with no instructions for moving forward. We are sometimes not sure we even want to move into the new year.
That may be the very reason for the ball drop in New York, the champagne toasts with all the hugging and kissing, the elaborate party decorations including metallic pointy hats and horns blowing in the night. Maybe we celebrate so hard because we are so hurt, so filled with regret, so shamed, so afraid of the future. We stand at the gate of the new year holding all that we brought from the old one. Sometimes the burden we are carrying is a heavy, heavy burden to carry, but we simply don’t believe we can throw it off and start on the new year’s unknown path, unburdened and free.
Yes, we do leave all our memories behind in the year that has passed, and in the new year, we hope to realize fresh, new dreams. A wise person says that around us, we have those who love us and within us, we have all we need. But the most eloquent advice I know that addresses our old year/new year dilemma comes from yet another poet, Minnie L. Haskins:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”