The first day of a new year. It's the clean slate, the Etch-A-Sketch shaken, a chance to reboot and redouble our efforts, the hope of a fresh start.
But there's one huge hurdle that comes before the hope -- getting through New Year's Eve. It's a date that everyone has strong opinions about, and a lot of them sound like this:
"I can't stand New Year's Eve parties," L.A. publicist Marilyn Heston says. "It's amateur night. It's a forced occasion -- like your birthday after you hit a certain age. You find yourself saying: 'Please, will it ever stop?' "
"New Year's for me has never lived up to the hype," says Paul Gargano, an artist manager and writer. "If you think it will be cool to see a band, they're off the stage by 10:30 and you're sitting in traffic at midnight."
Maybe it's the buildup, the booze or the crankiness that's inevitable when early risers have to feign festivity at midnight. But start asking around about people's plans and it's not long before you have to pose the real questions: Why do so many people hate New Year's Eve so much? (And is there any hope of redeeming it?)
You could, if you wanted, lay the blame for our New Year's Eve angst on the Romans. They're the ones who named the month of January for Janus -- the god of doors, gates, beginnings and endings who's often depicted with two faces that look in opposite directions. The Romans set the start of the new year as January in 153 BC, and some link the party-hearty aspects of our observances to the solstice celebration of Saturnalia (parts of which have also found their way into our modern-day Christmas celebrations).
A couple thousand years later, American culture made its own contribution with the Times Square ball drop, which, according to the Times Square Alliance, began in New York in 1907 and has marked the moment every year since (save the wartime years of 1942 and 1943). The televised festivities are now watched by millions around the globe, feeding the notion that the quintessential way to see in the new year is to bundle up, join a crowd of strangers and count down December's waning moments. The great American marketing machine helped fill out the picture of the evening with flutes of Champagne, elaborate restaurant spreads, big bands and suave couples embracing at the stroke of midnight.
It's that image of perfect joyous celebration -- touched off by the descent of a 12-foot, 11,875-pound geodesic sphere covered in 2,668 Waterford crystals -- that's at the heart of so much New Year's dread for so many, says Dr. Josh Klapow, a Los Angeles native and a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. "For most people, the ideal is the clinking of Champagne glasses, dinner in a fancy restaurant, kissing your sweetheart, when that's often not reality. That starts a vicious cycle of unhappiness."
What really ratchets up the pressure for the last party night of the year, says Klapow, who counsels patients on how to manage the holidays, is that the intense focus is concentrated on a single moment. "At least when you're stressed about the other holidays, the pressure is off -- you've got Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, eight days of Hanukkah, a month of Ramadan. For New Year's you have that one evening and that's it."
And oh how some of us resent it. "Personally I hate New Year's Eve," says Susan Humphreville, chief financial officer of L.A.-based Target Media Partners. "I've always thought it was an overrated holiday. People think they've got to go to some fun party and even if you find a party to go to, it doesn't meet expectations.
"The only reason I hate it more now is having kids the ages of ours -- 22, 20 and 17. They're either struggling to come up with something so they're down in the dumps, or they're out somewhere, which worries me."
It's enough to make you want to turn in early.
Still, not everyone hates the holiday. The question is: What separates the people who love it from those who just loathe it?
Anecdotal evidence might suggest that younger people enjoy it more than older ones, couples are happier than singletons and optimists' love of the evening trumps pessimists'. But Klapow's take is more nuanced.
"The difference is being honest with yourself," he says. Basically, you're poised for dread "unless your true personal desire is a perfect match to the template for the American New Year's Eve celebration fed to us by the media and the market."
Party with the masses if you will, but, says Klapow, "if you aren't being true to yourself, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment."
One theory that seemed fairly intuitive -- that optimists would be more likely to host house parties -- was shot down by Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital.
"There are too many factors at work," she says. "So I wouldn't say it can be seen in terms of optimism versus pessimism or anything else. Some people enjoy the excitement and chaos and some don't. Throwing a party in your home rather than going out may just be wanting to have supreme control of the situation. If there's any dividing line, it's probably how tired you are when the time rolls around."
Like Klapow, she acknowledged that younger celebrants were more likely to seek out the scene. "For them it's about being out and seeing and experiencing different things."
So back to the question: Who's actually enjoying New Year's Eve? An informal poll of people's plans for Wednesday night turned up surprising amount of enthusiasm just below the superficial disdain -- and confirmed that the experts were on target.
Age did appear to be a factor in the decision to join the crowd -- the only person queried who had locked-in plans to hit the town was 25-year-old Dahvi Shira, an online reporter for E!, who describes herself as someone who is "spontaneous and just goes with the flow." She's lived in Los Angeles since November 2006, but this will be her first New Year's Eve here.
"I'm going to catch the Travis Barker/DJ AM gig at the Lot," she says animatedly. "My cousin is in town from Boston and I wanted to show her what Hollywood's all about."
Among older potential revelers, indecision reigned, and even a week before the big night, many people were still weighing their options and shifting their plans.
"I used to do the out-to-clubs-and-restaurants thing [on New Year's]," says 45-year-old L.A. architect Bret Witke. "But it doesn't make sense to spend all that money to be around people you don't know and don't care about. I want to be able to sit down and have a real conversation."
So it's generally been his tradition to host a party for 70 or 80 friends at his home, with a full buffet. "But not this year," he says. Citing the dismal economy, he's decided the party will go dark. Don't expect to see him in the middle of a crowded club come midnight, though. "I'm still going to a small, intimate gathering," he says. "But at a friend's house."
Gargano, the writer, was in the midst of shifting plans too. He's spending his first New Year's Eve as a married man, and he and his wife will either hit the Giant Maximus party downtown L.A. or ring in the new year with the neighbors in their Mid-Wilshire duplex apartment. Either way, he says, they don't feel the need to buy into someone else's version of the celebration -- and they're happy about it.
That fits with one of psychiatrist Saltz's key observations: "In surveys, people say it's their relationships that give them the most happiness," she says. "And not necessarily the romantic kind. The easiest way to hedge your bets or raise your stock on New Year's Eve -- insert whatever money metaphor you want -- is to just call someone whose relationship means something to you and say: 'You know what I want to do for New Year's Eve? I want to spend it with you.' "
Combine that with Klapow's admonition to be true to yourself and you've probably got the essence of New Year's Eve happiness.
For the last nine years, publicist Heston has decamped with her family to their slope-side place in Whistler, British Columbia, where they celebrate with raclette and a hop in the sauna with friends. "If we can stay awake long enough, it's midnight in the sauna, out into the snow and back into the sauna. They're these great Canadian friends; he's a potter and she's a basket-weaver."
She may hate the proscribed rituals of the evening, but she loves the ones she's created herself and the people she's spending it with.
All those people who say they can't stand New Year's Eve? One begins to wonder if they've simply been walking the most freighted night of the year in someone else's party shoes, trying to have someone else's celebration instead of their own.
"As long as you aren't hurting yourself or the people around you, there's no wrong way to ring in the New Year," Klapow says. "You can be with a million people or nobody. It's your New Year's."
So in a few days, when you raise your glass of bubbly to Travis Barker and DJ AM at the Lot -- or your TiVo remote to Ben & Jerry in the living room -- make your New Year's resolution to leave the loathing behind.