Even in my 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 services, school classes and appointments of all sorts are missed by margins of an hour or more, but the beginning of the new secular year is hit with bull’s-eye precision. The difference between 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 00:00:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 is greeted as a magical and rapturous transfiguration, whereas the difference between Advent and Christmas has all but vanished; and the line between Lent and Easter has faded away as well. The amoeba-like spread of Carnival festivities 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. Thus we lavish with worshipful devotion and obsessively punctual observance the bland instant in which a 2019 becomes a 2020. It doesn’t even fall on the solstice!
And the ritual is coveted, almost addictively, because we are missing a defining time-marker still inherent in our culture: the cut-off nature of the date of December 25, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger for the first time since last year’s Christmas (instead of being seen in the shopping centers since October), with a neat and dramatic sundering of Christmastide from Advent, and cheerful Christmas songs replacing the longing, wistful Advent tunes sung before the Coming; or, three months later, 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, followed by dozens of flames in its train. That explosion of light, like a sudden sunrise, begins the Easter vigil. All these soul-filling moments are gone, and accordingly, we lust after secular surrogates.
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, with hands on heart and tears in the eyes (in Brazil, they are actually called national hymns). Tithes all gone? Let’s declare our income tax before the mystical date of April 30. Forgotten how to pray? Try intoning one of the politically correct buzzwords of our day and watch the heads bow in reverence. Or maybe blaspheme a bit (after all, it’s just prayer in drag; how many times do you hear “Oh my God!” during the week?).
Now I am not discouraging New Year’s festivities – once-a-year punctuality is better than never (speaking here especially to Brazilians), and the solar (or lunar) year’s inauguration is a hoary tradition that deserves respect. So let us lift a glass indeed. But as we countdown the last gasps of our civil year, let us briefly recall that one day – soon – we will be countdowning our own last gasps, and all those neglected holy days of the year will prove to have been far better training for that final transition than the confetti and champagne of January 1. This New Year could possibly be our Last Year, and our connection with lasting things be far more vital than our distracting innovations. Even though we propose to hail the new and to salute the promises of the future, we are still haunted by the perennial and ancient. “Auld Lang Syne,” after all, simply means “long, long ago.”