Even in my beloved adopted country of Brazil, where a massively endemic unpunctuality rules the land, nearly every soul will be awake, seconds before midnight on Dec. 31, glaring at a clock and scrupulously chanting the countdown to the new civil year. Beginnings of church, school classes and appointments of all sorts are missed by margins of up to an hour, but the beginning of the new secular year is hit with bull’s-eye precision. The difference between 11:59:59 pm on Dec. 31 and 00:00:01 am on Jan. 1 is greeted as a magical and rapturous transfiguration, but the difference between Advent and Christmas has all but vanished; and the line between Lent and Easter has blurred as well. The amoeba-like spread of Carnival festivities here in Brazil bears some relationship to Lent, it is true, but Ash Wednesday usually slips (along with the rest of the liturgical year) into the long shadow of Fat Tuesday.
The reason for this is simple. When religion declines, religiosity remains – it just shifts its abode; when transcendence is no longer believed in, the immanent world becomes the shaky support for cult and adoration. We lavish the bland moment of the quantitative change of a 2016 to a 2017, for example—it does not even fall on the solstice!—with devotion and obsessively punctual observance. And the intensity is possible, almost necessary, because we no longer experience the dramatic moment of December 25, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger for the first time since last January (and Christmastide is sundered from Advent); or the chill down one’s spine as a church is totally darkened and the lumen Christi, in the form of one sole candle, enters the sanctuary for the explosion of light at Easter. When holy days become holidays, otherwise uplifting days become ‘days off’, and our orphaned religious instincts look elsewhere for their rules and rubrics. Religious hymns no longer sung? How about a national anthem at a sports match, even with tears in one’s eyes (in Brazil, they are called national ‘hymns’ anyway). Tithes all gone? Let’s pay our taxes before the magical date of April 30. Forgotten how to pray? Try blaspheming (which is just prayer in drag). And away with religious commandments! But do be politically correct…. I think you get my drift. Now I am not discouraging New Year’s festivities—once-a-year punctuality is better than none at all (speaking here to Brazilians), and the solar (or for some, lunar) year’s inauguration is a hoary tradition and deserves respect. Let us lift a glass indeed. But as we countdown the last gasps of our civil years, we should briefly recall that one day we will be countdowning our own last gasps, and all those neglected holy days of the year will be far better help for that transition than the confetti and champagne of January 1.