Happy New Year, to all those not already sick of hearing that. I personally like to think that holidays bring out the inner child in all of us, the one who wants to do irrational things just because we can. After all, holidays are one of the few times that most people can get away with wearing stupid hats and randomly decorating perfectly acceptable pieces of candy as animals.
They’re good that way, holidays.
They’re also good in that they’re great generators of anecdotes and stories and traditions. My family doesn’t have a lot of particular, rigid customs; we tend to decide at about 8pm how to celebrate the New Year’s arrival, and though Christmas dinner usually has lots of similarities to those gone past, I’m sure we’ve always ended up omitting some previously important detail, and added a new one only to forget three years later.
But around holiday time, and especially the Christmas holidays, people travel, and spend time with relatives they wouldn’t otherwise see often (I hear people say that often, anyway, though my family usually keeps to itself), and let down their guard. And that leaves a lot more opportunity for interesting things to happen. You’re more likely to accidentally get directions to a deserted farm over Christmas, because that’s when you’re out driving in some other state looking desperately for your brother’s new farmhouse. And grandmother’s much more likely to bake your aunt’s ring into pie over the holidays, because that’s when you’re all together, cooking and baking up a feast for each other. It’s simple logic, and the fruits of these strange seasons entertain me.
There is, though, one thing which often bothers me throughout the holidays. It’s a nagging thought of what you could be doing instead, of where you could be instead, of how the holiday could be so very different. Maybe it’s because in my early life my holidays were always so varied; Easter in my backyard one year and the next in an Italian hotel, and candlelit white Christmases juxtaposed against the hot, summer Decembers of Australia. My favourite New Year’s celebration was a strange affair in the Czech Republic, where we drove into Prague in early evening to find the city packed with revelers, who tossed fireworks at our car as we passed by. The crowds worried my parents, and it was far too hard to find accommodation anyway, so we changed our plans to overnight in the city and drove further into the country, away to more rural areas and through tiny little towns. I was only 8 or 9, and we drove deep into the night, unable to find somewhere for all of us to stay. Tempers rose and impatience grew and at some point, I was given a chocolate muesli bar. It was late, and I can’t remember whether the muesli bar was my dinner or just given to me to ensure I wouldn’t complain, but I ate half and then carefully pulled the foil wrapper back over it and put it beside me. Too sleepy to even finish the bar, I lay my head against the bumping window and promptly fell asleep.
Later, my mother shook me gently awake, and I found myself in some foreign room. My parents held champagne in glass flutes and the room was dim, even dark. I was still in socks, having had my shoes removed before I was put in bed, so my father simply carried me out to the street outside, where a number of other people were gathered. We seemed to be in a house I didn’t recognise, and I wondered dreamily how we could have gotten this champagne, and where on earth we were.
I think the strangers outside thought I was cute, because I vaguely remember people saying things I didn’t understand, presumably in Czech, to me, and someone gave me a length of thick metal, more than half a metre long. It was a massive sparkler, and as the church bells tolled the New Year I held the sparkler and marveled at its light. There might have been other fireworks, but I don’t remember them, being far too concerned with the gloriously oversized sparkler that I was allowed to hold in my little hands. All around me were strangers laughing, cheering, talking in that foreign language, and my brother and parents, close by me and enjoying the moment with, I suspect, the same confused but excited acceptance of its strangeness as myself. It must have been cold, at the end of December there in Eastern Europe, but I just remember how odd everything was, and how the strangeness of it all just accentuated the excitement in my sleepy mind.The night still has, in my imaginative memory, a storybook-like quality to it, one of those nights you’ll always remember yet never quite understand why it felt so special.
My very last memory of that night was eating the second half of my precious muesli bar. Somehow, to my romantic little mind, the tiny morsels of food seemed like a fitting end to the night, and with the impromptu supper over I finally gave in to the oppressive sleepiness that had held reign over me throughout the affair.
And though to some it probably seems stupid, every year after that I remember that New Year’s Eve. It was so different to the others I’ve had, and also probably the first that I can clearly remember the details of. And so it’s always influenced how I experience the 31st of December, and occasionally I find myself wishing that this year was more like that one. It is, in fact, probably the single most frustrating recurring problem I have with the holidays: my constant comparison of them to all those gone past and how they might have been better.
But in the end, I love the holidays. I love them for reminding me of all the wonderful experiences I’ve had, and even though those may be sprinkled with memories of fights and family dramas and getting lost, I still love those good memories.
(And, of course, over the years I slowly subconsciously improve them, and add in more excitement and glamour and splendour. I know our childhood memories tend to be imperfect and improvised, even if they seem perfectly true to us. But I don’t care. I like indulging in that pleasant nostalgia anyway.)
I later found out that my parents had found a little pension, a kind of lodging-house run out of someone’s granny flat, to stay at, in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere there in Czechslovakia. We’d also bought the champagne from our hosts, and they’d kindly lent us the glasses. The semi-surreal experience for me was in fact quite logical when explained, but unlikely enough to allow me to retain my sense of wonder about the night.