Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of New Year

An essay by George William Curtis

The New Year

Title:     The New Year
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

IN Germany on Sylvesterabend--the eve of Saint Sylvester, the last night of the year--you shall wake and hear a chorus of voices singing hymns, like the English waits at Christmas or the Italian pifferari. In the deep silence, and to one awakening, the music has a penetrating and indefinable pathos, the pathos that Richter remarked in all music, and which our own Parsons has hinted delicately--

"Strange was the music that over me stole,
For 'twas born of old sadness that lives in my

There is something of the same feeling in the melody of college songs heard at a little distance on awakening in the night before Commencement. The songs are familiar, but they have an appealing melancholy unknown before. Their dying cadences murmur like a muffled peal heralding the visionary procession that is passing out of the enchanted realm of youth forever. So the voices of Sylvester's Eve chant the requiem of the year that is dead. So much more of life, of opportunity, of achievement, passed; so much nearer age, decline, the mystery of the end. The music swells in rich and lingering strains. It is a moment of exaltation, of purification. The chords are dying; the hymn is ending; it ends. The voices are stilled. It is the benediction of Saint Sylvester:

"She died and left to me ...
The memory of what has been,
And nevermore will be."

But this is the midnight refrain--The King is dead! With the earliest ray of daylight the exulting strain begins--Live the King! The bells are ringing; the children are shouting; there are gifts and greetings, good wishes and gladness. "Happy New Year! happy New Year!" It is the day of hope and a fresh beginning. Old debts shall be forgiven; old feuds forgotten; old friendships revived. To-day shall be better than yesterday. The good vows shall be kept. A blessing shall be wrung from the fleet angel Opportunity. There shall be more patience, more courage, more faith; the dream shall become life; to-day shall wear the glamour of to-morrow. Ring out the old, ring in the new!

Charles Lamb says that no one ever regarded the first of January with indifference; no one, that is to say, of the new style. But a fellow-pilgrim of the old style, before Pope Gregory retrenched those ten days in October, three hundred years ago, or the British Parliament those eleven days in September, a hundred and thirty-five years ago, took no thought of the first of January. It was a date of no significance. To have mused and moralized upon that day more than upon any other would have exposed him to the mischance against which Rufus Choate asked his daughter to defend him at the opera: "Tell me, my dear, when to applaud, lest unwittingly I dilate with the wrong emotion." The Pope and the Parliament played havoc with the date of the proper annual emotion. Moreover, if a man should happen to think of it, every day is a new-year's day. If we propose a prospect or a retrospect we can stand tiptoe on the top of every day, yes, and of every hour, in the year. Good-morning is but a daily greeting of Happy New Year.

But these smooth generalizations and truisms do not disturb the charm of regularly recurring times and seasons. That the fifth of October, or any day in any month, actually begins a new year, does not give to that date the significance and the feeling of the first of January. Our fellow-pilgrim of the old style must look out for himself. He may have begun his year in March, and a blustering birth it was. But we are children of the new style, and the first of January is our New Year. That is our day of remembrance, our feast of hope, the first page of our fresh calendar of good resolutions, the day of underscoring and emphasis of the swift lapse of life. "A few more of them, and then--" whispers the mentor, who is not deceived by the jolly compliments of the season, and the sober significance of the whisper is plain enough. "Eheu! Posthume," sang the old Roman. "This world and the next, and all's over!" said airy Tom Lackwit to the afflicted widow.

The relentless punctuality, the unwearied urgency, of old Time, who turns his hour-glass with such a sonorous ring on New-Year's Day, seems sometimes a little wanting in the best breeding. It furnishes so unnecessary a register. The slow whitening and thinning of the hair; the gradual incision of wrinkles; the queer antics of the sight, which holds the newspaper at farther and farther removes, until at last it is forced to succumb to glasses; the abated pace in walking; the dexterous avoidance of stone walls in country rambles; the harmless frauds lurking in the expressed reasons for frequent pauses in climbing a hill to turn and see the landscape--frauds which the tears of my Uncle Toby's good angel promptly wash away; the general and gradual adjustment to greater repose--all these surely are adequate reminders and signs of the sovereignty of Time. Why should he be greedy of more? Why thump and rattle at the door, as it were, on the first of January, and bawl out to the whole world that we are a year older, and that makes--!

It is disagreeably unnecessary. Why should not the old fellow do his duty quietly, and tell off another year without such an outrageous uproar? Does he think it so pleasant to hear his increasing tally--forty, five, fifty, five, sixty, five? Peace! peace! Why not have it understood that the tally beyond--well, say fifty, is a gross impertinence? Let something be left to the imagination. Besides, what is the use of wigs and hair-dye and padding, and what not coloring and enamelling, and other juvenescent procedures of the feminine arcana, if annual proclamation of impertinent dates and facts is to be made?

The worst of it is that it is a positive interference with the just play of the fundamental truth that age is not justly measurable by the mere lapse of time. Some people are never young, others defy age. This, indeed, is due to temperament. But that is not all. Those gray hairs and wrinkles, that eyesight of less keenness, that disinclination to leap walls, and those fraudulent halts to survey the rearward landscape, are enemies whose assaults are by no means regular. They come at very different times to different people. Adolphus at sixty despises spectacles. Triptolemus at thirty is bald. The hair of Horatius at sixty-five is as affluent as Hyperion's, and as dark without unguents as the raven's plume. Let facts speak to a candid world. Why should that graybeard Paul Pry called Time blare through a speaking-trumpet that the brave Valentine--

"As wild his thoughts and gay of wing
As Eden's garden bird"--

is just as old as old, toothless, tottering, decrepit Orson?

Every well-regulated citizen of the world is interested, and more vitally interested with every closing year, that upon the point of age all men shall be left to their merits, and shall not be measured arbitrarily by that Procrustean standard of years. It is notorious that men grow wiser every year, and it is observable that the more years they have, the more they look with doubt and questioning upon the Family Record. Those leaves of births following the doubtful books of Scripture, registered with such painful and needless particularity of dates, partake of the doubtfulness of their neighborhood. They are mere intercalations, new books of the Apocrypha. Yet they often cause young fellows of seventy to be accused and convicted of being old men.

Since, then, we cannot stop the flight of Time, let him pass. But he must not calumniate as he passes. He must not be allowed to stigmatize vigor and health and freshness of feeling and the young heart and the agile foot as old merely because of a certain number of years. This is the season of good resolutions. The new year begins in a snow-storm of white vows. So be it. But let our whitest vow be, after that for a whiter life, that age shall no longer be measured by this arbitrary standard of years, and that those deceitful and practical octogenarians of thirty shall not escape as young merely because they have not yet shown the strength to carry threescore and ten with jocund elasticity.

Then Happy New Year shall not mean Good-night, but Good-morrow.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: New Year