Of all the festive days in our calendar—and we have so many—the only one that has genuine significance for me is Old Year’s Day.
Nothing to do with the expectations and hopes that accompany heralding a new year. I believe that every day is just 24 hours apart from another, and what we make of it is up to us: to either endow it with texture and beauty or bitterly wash it down the drain in the backyard.
Life has such a way of being unruly and arbitrary; day in, day out. I have often had to restrain myself from warning young people that birthday milestones—sweet 16, adult 18, flamboyant 21—don’t bring the dramatic changes that are promised. It would be such a killjoy.
No, the thing I have with Old Year’s Day comes from a childhood enchantment; a simple act that infused a sense that magical things were possible. Given my nature, it is a paradoxical position, but it holds.
When we were children—with my cousins we were a large clan—living on the street I still call home, it was a tradition to greet midnight at a crossroad. I cannot recall what we used to be doing beforehand, but I can still feel the mounting excitement in the air as the hour approached.
About 10 or 15 minutes or so before the moment, there would be a surging bustle from all sides. Aunts and their offspring would stream by (I don’t recall uncles as participants) and together we would troop off towards the end of the street.
Technically, it might not have been a crossroad, because Hollis Street was interrupted by the Bermudez Biscuit Company, whose factory stood close to the end of the street, splicing it—so that it was more of a T-junction than an actual intersection.
It served our purposes though, the whole street-load of us. Apparently, positioning oneself in such an auspicious spot on the final day of the year at midnight, meant that wishes would come true. So we trotted purposefully down to the Bermudez premises, joining our neighbours eagerly like a bunch of punters with sure bets. And we would stand there, full of goodwill and warm chatter, waiting for the stroke of midnight.
Someone would begin a countdown and everyone would chime in. No music, no fireworks, nothing but a community gathered in good faith.
At the moment, I would squeeze my eyes shut and make some wish, and afterwards, there would be maybe another 10 minutes or so of socialising, until comments on the chilliness of the Christmas breeze—it making cold—would remind parents that children had to get out of the dew.
So we would wend our ways home; enthusiastic strides now giving way to languid steps. The same gravelly stretch that was sharp and hot under our bare feet during days of errands and games, now assumed an ethereal glow under moonbeams and twinkling stars that lent dignified silhouettes to features.
Were we barefooted in the moment? I cannot recall. My memory simply lingers on the intense feeling of the presence of something wondrous in that half an hour; 30 minutes of pure magic.
We may or may not have partaken of some meal at that point, but I figure that unaccustomed as we were to staying up so late, we might just have gone to bed. In any case, the fare might have been black-eyed peas and rice, never one of my favourites, and the earlier dinner would have been my beloved baked chicken with stuffing and bread.
It all ended when we moved away while I was still a child, but the sensations have never left.
Until now, I’d never really delved into the reason for my connection to Old Year’s Night, and in retrospect, I think that ruined all my adult experiences of the occasion. It is foolhardy to put so much weight on any moment. It is simply not sustainable.
It’s not that all later celebrations have fallen flat, one or two have been memorable, but not because of the occasion. They would have had the same meaning on any other night. Still, nothing compares with the delightful innocence of childhood and the freedom of imagination.
And what was its essence? It was a community coming together in peace and harmony. In such a working-class environment, there were no gatherings at anyone’s homes. We didn’t enter houses. I would be sent to share produce from my grandfather’s garden in Aranjuez; calling at the gates with a basin full of whatever was in season, and waiting for it to be emptied and the container returned.
The notion of champagne, fireworks, party hats and glittering gowns never laid eyes on our street.
Whereas for me, it represents a pristine, simple, time, I feel that has not been the same for many. I had no idea that we were poor—even now, I do not look back at it as a time of deprivation. Everyone was in the same khaki pants. But I have heard people say that as they grew older they wanted to put those memories behind, banish their perceived hardships into oblivion.
Perhaps that accounts for the desire for extravagant celebrations and noisiness to drown the stillness that surrounded ragged nights, and bleakness went unnoticed by my shining eyes.
Happy new year!