Rites of passage--weddings, funerals, graduations--are invariably disconcerting affairs, and New Year's is the most unnerving ritual of all, as it commemorates nothing but the passage of time. With no cute couple or new baby to coo over, no promotion to be toasted, New Year's is an occasion with a gaping hole dead center, and the world tries to fill that hole up with booze.
By all rights, New Year's should be a day of introspection, a somber meditation on time. Time, however, can be a rather frightening subject for contemplation, being, as it is, the ultimate metaphor for mortality, the river that sweeps us all to the same inevitable conclusion.
Paradoxically, the calendar is an inaccurate measure of human experience, as life doesn't unfold in an orderly, linear fashion so much as it expands in fits and starts. Sometimes it moves at an agonizingly slow pace, and fate just doesn't seem to be dealing us into the game. Then there are tumultuous periods when we live a lifetime in a week. Realizations of this sort make New Year's a schizophrenic affair.
It's human nature to giggle when nervous, and we collapse into hysterical laughter on Dec. 31. The world makes a frantic noise in an effort to drown out the sound of the ticking clock, and struggles to obscure the truth of the occasion by dressing it up in garish party hats and tinsel. The pressure to have loud fun is overwhelming, and New Year's invites, no, demands , that we be sociable and high-spirited.