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Who Can Say When the Evening Ends and the Night Begins?
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Who Can Say When the Evening Ends and the Night Begins?

On celebrating the New Year.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 01: Confetti fall as the ball drops over Times Square during the 2022 New Year’s Eve celebrations on January 01, 2022 in New York City. Despite a major surge in Covid -19 cases in New York City and across the country, the city held a scaled-down celebration for the annual ball drop. This year, a maximum of 15,000 people will be in attendance, down from approximately 60,000, and proof of vaccination and protective masks are required. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

New Year’s Eve is surely the strangest of all holidays. Thanksgiving dinners, a romantic Valentine’s date, birthday parties—all are relatively intimate occasions. Perhaps Halloween is an exception, when we send our children around to the doors of neighbors. But we don’t celebrate together with them. A quick “trick-or-treat,” some candy dropped into a waiting bag, and it’s off to the next house. For a civic occasion like the Fourth of July, we might attend a public event like a parade, but afterwards we retreat to the back yard for barbecue. But on New Year’s Eve, countless people head out to restaurants, bars, clubs, and of course Times Square to celebrate with large crowds of total strangers.

And then there is the practice, more honored in the breach than the observance, of marking the occasion with a New Year’s resolution. I have nothing against such resolutions; to the contrary, I envy anyone who can make and actually keep one. As for me, I gave up making them long ago, because I know myself too well: any resolution worth making is one I would prove too weak-willed to keep. I suspect I am the rule rather than the exception, given our gently ironic assumption that the shelf life of most New Year’s resolutions is about two weeks.

But most baffling of all is the sheer irrationality of New Year’s Eve as an occasion for celebration. Is any other holiday so utterly unmotivated? We know why we celebrate days like Christmas and Easter, and even those who no longer view them as religious festivals can recognize their historical origins. We understand the basis for civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or Presidents’ Day. Thanksgiving has a mixed religious and civic background. Even a more artificial holiday like Mother’s Day at least has a clear rationale.

But New Year’s? What possible significance could there be to turning the calendar from December 31 to January 1? It has no more meaning than the change from December 30 to December 31, or from November 30 to December 1, or for that matter from, say, June 11 to June 12. It marks no special event, no achievement, no turning point in anyone’s life. Who can even say, really, when one year ends and another begins? Every date on the calendar marks the beginning of a new year.

It all just seems so arbitrary.

* * * * *

For a bit of light holiday entertainment, I have been re-reading a mystery novel, Friedrich Glauser’s Wachtmeister Studer, generally considered the first great detective novel from German-speaking Switzerland. The title translates roughly to Inspector Studer in English. (Bitter Lemon Press has published an English translation under the title Thumbprint.) Glauser, born in Vienna to Swiss parents, lived a brief but eventful and tragic life. He ran away from home, clashed with school authorities, suffered from repeated bouts of drug addiction, served a stint in the French Foreign Legion, and repeatedly underwent treatment in psychiatric clinics before dying in 1938 at the age of 42.

There are two kinds of mysteries. In the first, a crime creates a rift in the just order of society. Its solution, in which all loose ends must be logically tied together, represents the restoration of order, justice, and harmony. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the classic example of this type, where we expect the pieces to fit neatly into place. The second kind is messier. Its world is less orderly, and it can be difficult to distinguish the heroes from the villains. Even when the mystery is solved, there is no final or decisive restoration of order. The novels of Raymond Chandler are a good example of this variety.

Studer belongs to the second type. Justice is served to an extent, in that an innocent man is saved from prosecution. But as Wachtmeister Studer concludes—I’ll avoid giving away too much of the ending—Studer decides not to reveal everything he has learned about the murder, in order to protect the killer’s wife. The initial suspect and the dead man’s not entirely innocent family members will go on with their lives. But they cannot simply leave that past behind them. Not in a little Swiss village where, it is clear, everyone has lots of ideas about everyone else, and where the rumors of what they might or might not have done could easily prove even worse than the reality.

Near the novel’s end, Studer, attempting to fight off an illness long enough to solve the case, slips into some feverish reflections. He recalls the biblical injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” As a principle of criminal justice, of course, that is not very helpful. If we are to judge others only when we are safe from all judgment ourselves, that will be the end of any prosecutions. But it drives home the complex intermingling of guilt and innocence that Studer unravels as his investigation digs deeper and deeper. “Who can say,” Studer wonders as he slips into a feverish sleep, “when the evening ends and the night begins?”

It all just seems so arbitrary.

* * * * *

Perhaps we can learn something from Studer about the meaning of New Year’s Eve. Most holidays are like the first type of mystery: they make sense, have a reason, fit into and reaffirm the orderly march of the year, which is punctuated by days of special significance that give meaning to the rest of “ordinary” time.

But New Year’s Eve is the second type, a Wachtmeister Studer among holidays. If it represents a kind of resolution, the end to one year, it is only a partial resolution. For a new year begins immediately, with no real distinction between the last second of the old and the first of the new. Who can say when one year ends and another begins? Who can say when the evening ends and the night begins?

Indeed, it is precisely the arbitrariness of the whole thing that is most helpful. If there were some rhyme or reason to the celebration of a New Year, some significance to the coming of January 1 that did not attach to December 31 or December 1 or June 12, we might be tempted to read too much into the day. We might think that it really did represent a clean break with the past, that the loose ends of our lives were now tied up, that we can leave yesterday’s messiness behind us. That this time our resolutions will really hold and we can make a clean start.

We can’t, of course. And the irrationality of New Year’s makes it that much harder to fool ourselves about this. So perhaps it is worth having at least one holiday in the calendar that is utterly arbitrary. The meaning of which is simply: We made it through another year. Tomorrow’s a new day. Let’s try to do better next time.

Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science and dean of religion, humanities, and global studies at Houghton University.