When I was 16 or 17, I became obsessed with young men falling into canals on New Year’s Eve. Local news seemed to thrive off stories of drunken teenagers stumbling home from nightclubs, too inebriated to hail a taxi, and getting lost in bodies of water. I convinced myself that this was extremely common (it isn’t). That, if I let down my guard, it would happen to me, too (it didn’t). I never knew whether horrors like this occurred most often around new year, or whether the news just seemed to cover them more then, but it always felt like fitting timing: take some of the most depressing few days on the calendar, then pile onto it one of the most ghoulish, anxiety-inducing scenarios imaginable. Instant multi-tiered misery.
For as long as I’ve been conscious of “going out out” on New Year’s Eve, I’ve associated the 31st of December with mild panic and grisly death. This could, though, be termed a chronically paranoid person’s version of average new year’s melancholy, a condition that affects, well, pretty much everyone. Various polls over the years have confirmed that we generally find New Year’s Eve to be a horror show, or at least unusually exhausting for what is allegedly a lot of fun. One 2012 study claimed that Brits think of it as “the most depressing night of the year”, which seems accurate.
New year is sandwiched between periods of notable angst. The days after Christmas are typically barren, the downtime providing far too many opportunities to sit with your feelings and brood. The first few weeks of the new year tend to be depressing, too. Your bank account has dwindled. Your resolutions are already flatlining. You’re down to the last dregs of the Celebrations. Stuck in the middle is this ominous date, where all of the above – the consternation, the contemplation, the chocolates – come to a head.
It’s possibly why so much pressure exists around the big day itself. Because we know we’re all in an emotional tailspin, we feel the need to overcompensate. There will be exaggerated merriment; the performance of having a good time. The people who head to outdoor events, like the fireworks at the London Eye, seem pained once the truth of it all sets in: sure, you’re not shivering in a nightclub queue, but you are being crammed into a mass of increasingly stir crazy tourists while an Olly Murs type stalls for time performing their new song nearby. Bars and clubs, meanwhile, ooze quiet desperation at this time of year, not just with people attempting to find someone to kiss at midnight, but for an overall experience that won’t be regretful. It rarely happens.
Over the years I have tried out various kinds of new year celebrations. I’ve done the loud and gregarious. The cosy and familial. The single and not single. I’ve never gone to bed early, having always respected a tradition I find otherwise debilitating. But I do spend every new year thinking about what else I could be doing. It’s the night of endless greener grass – you’re just as likely to resent helping someone cough up their insides into a toilet bowl as you are likely to miss it if you’re twiddling your thumbs and watching Jools Holland instead. Dissatisfaction is just baked in.
I don’t know if it’s possible to have a New Year’s Eve not wrapped in ennui. Go out and you’ll find yourself on a voyage of bad pills, cheap booze, cameos in strangers’ Instagram Stories and the crushing early hours realisation that a whole additional year of work and responsibility is right around the corner. Stay in and you’ll likely experience that same blow – only sober.
Perhaps the only way to survive it is to run towards the pain rather than shrink from it. Embrace the misery. Embrace the sticky dancefloors and the getting off with the absolute worst of people. Embrace the chaos of trying to bribe the short-straw-drawing employee of your local Tesco Metro into opening up the shutters on the booze. If your night ends with a pleading text message to an ex or a far-too-long stumble back through the backstreets of a town your friend’s friend’s university housemate once soiled himself in, well... that’s just new year.
If that mindset doesn’t work, though, you can always try and accept that New Year’s Eve is a bit of a sham. Our preconceptions of the night are largely based on treating it as if it’s something unique in the calendar. But, when it really comes down to it, you will spend many other nights of the year being depressed. Or drunk. Or some degree of both. Nightclubs are just as hellish in autumn as they are around Christmas. Young men are just as likely to fall into riverbanks on 31 December as they are in mid-summer. And you know all of those sherry-swilling sophisticates in the studio of Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny? They’re not even there because it’s pre-recorded well in advance! They could be just as sad on New Year’s Eve as you are! Which is to say that there’s no secret sauce to making new year enjoyable, no event or activity that could make this one, rather than the last one or the one before that, somehow great. There is, annoyingly, no right or wrong way to do it. But we could do with worrying about it a lot less.