Every religion has holidays (holy days) that contain prescribed rituals, prayers and texts, but there are also holidays that have more secular roots and come unadorned with any ground rules. Such is the case with Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I was thinking about this last night, New Year’s Eve, as we enacted rituals that are deeply rooted in our family history. They may bear some resemblance to what you might see in other households but they’re basically idiosyncratic.
Early in our marriage we fled the bleak, colorless New England winter and landed in Mexico City during this holiday season. It’s hard to believe that it was Rosellen’s first trip out of the country, given the hundreds of thousands of travel miles we’ve logged since then. There were so many intense sensory experiences of those days in the Mexican capital – the houses painted in rich colors,, such a contrast to the greyness we had left behind; the unique smell of the morning air whose elements were hard to parse – wood smoke? Cooking spices? Virgin air not yet polluted by bus exhaust and heavy traffic?; the costumes of the dancers in the Zocalo and the rhythms they danced to. And of course there was the food – the garlic soup, the street corn slathered with mayonnaise and chili powder, the stews in the stalls around the food markets that were so inviting, but which we had to bypass because their contents were unknown and probably forbidden.
Then there were the cafes that served hot chocolate – the Mexican variety in which the chocolate partnered with cinnamon – and churros rolled in a bed of cinnamon and sugar. Neither of us had ever seen or heard of a churro before. It was a time when ethnic foods were still a rarity in many parts of the United States; people were only beginning to travel the world as they later did in great numbers until the pandemic slammed the gates shut. When we were preparing for our next New Year’s Eve, we found ourselves harking back to that magical trip the previous year and decided to invoke it by preparing churros and chocolate as midnight approached. By now our kitchen contraptions included a metal gadget that extruded dough with the wavy surface we associate with churros. I can’t remember where we scored the Mexican chocolate, but we’ve never been without a supply in the 50+ years when we repeated this practice. It proved to be a tradition with long legs which our children came to enjoy with us when they were old enough to stay up beyond their childhood bedtimes.
You might have noted that we were able to maintain this tradition because we almost never went out on New Year’s Eve. There have been a few rare occasions when we’ve been lured from our lair, but the pleasures of good fellowship were rarely a match for the stay-at-home delights. Beginning in my teenage years, New Year’s Eve was always a fraught, tense time ruled by the harsh requirements of party invitations, date partners secured, kisses mostly not bestowed. I was so glad to be done with all that.
Another essential part of our home-grown New Year’s Eve tradition honors the passage of time. As in most households our kitchen/breakfast room wall contains a calendar with boxes large enough for each day to record doctors’ appointments, trips, dinner invitations, theater and concert dates and any other occasions that call for reminders, lest they get lost in the busy flow of active lives. On New Year’s Eve we take down the calendar, place it on the dining room table and use it to relive the events of the year that’s leaving the stage. These excursions through the months are always accompanied by cries of disbelief about the way the passage of time messes with our memories. “I can’t believe that happened this year. It seemed so long ago.” Or alternatively, “It feels like we were there just last week. Did it happen that long ago?” Most disconcerting of all are responses like “I have absolutely no memory of having dinner with them. Am I losing my mind?” Altogether it feels like a respectful moment of looking back before we lunge ahead into another unreflective year.
But a strange thing happened this year when we sat down with our calendar – actually two calendars, for reasons that will come clear in a moment. On the big kitchen calendar, time essentially stopped in March. The pages were mostly blank, except for dates that were marked when the calendar first went up – birthdays, anniversaries, yahrzeits (reminders of the dates when memorial candles need to be lit for parents) – events anticipated far in advance like trips or conferences which were ships that never sailed. The second calendar, which hung next to our computer in the work room, had taken over the governing of our lives. It’s what we called our Zoom calendar, a unique product of our sadly restricted lives. The majority of entries are reminders of scheduled Zoom calls – family gatherings, virtual bat mitzvahs and funerals, meetings of assorted groups – book groups, writing groups, film groups. Many of these group sessions are attempts to maintain activities that had traditionally met in person. These efforts were a mixed success. Some just couldn’t thrive without the meals that fueled them or the settings in which they met. Others actually worked better online with everyone’s face immediately and simultaneously accessible and without the onerous and stressful travel they previously required.
This calendar review was a painful reminder of the ways in which our world has lost a third dimension, mediated as they are by that flat screen to which we have become anchored. The pandemic had also cut us loose from so many of the moorings that situated us in time. How often have you heard people complain that they don’t know what day of the week it is? The buoys that mark our passage through an otherwise undifferentiated ocean of time have been swept away, leaving us adrift. Fortunately, there are some distant sightings of land, and maybe soon the big calendar will return to its ascendancy and include once again some three-dimensional visits to our family, a long-delayed trip to England and a dinner or two with dear friends. As we say in response to certain prayers in the synagogue, “May it be his will.”
Happy New Year.