How to be alone on New Year's Eve
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Berlin, December 2016.
I wrote this on New Year's Eve two years ago, but it feels relevant to share it again here as the new COVID restrictions mean that many of us will be spending New Year's Eve alone this year. It would be written slightly differently for 2020 but I've left it here more or less unedited.
Patti Smith is perhaps the person whose habits, routines and rituals I have imitated most. I welcomed 2016 in the same way that Smith documented her New Year in M Train:
As thousands of drunken revelers disbursed in Time’s Square, my little Abyssinian circled the floor with me as I paced, wrestling with a poem I was aiming to finish to usher in the New Year, in homage to the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano… I decided to write a hecatomb for him- a hundred-line poem.
Three years ago, I was 18 and it was the first New Year’s Eve I could legally go out and drink. I spent the night sitting on the porch of my parents’ house, drinking coffee and writing a 100-line poem in homage to Patti Smith, mostly about a boy I was infatuated with at the time because that’s the kind of thing you write about when you’re 18.
As the clock struck midnight, across town champagne glasses jingled, lovers brushed lips, and I finished up my poem, lit a cigarette and looked up at the starry winter sky (again, I was 18 with a penchant for the melodramatic.) But, for a moment, I felt like my life had some sort of cosmic significance after all. Like I built worlds from scratch with my Christmas toys as a child, those first minutes of a brand new year were entirely my own, to mould and shape however I wanted. Life spins so quickly and we bounce off of other people and into new situations. We break hearts and wine glasses, get too drunk and cry or call our exes. We can’t avoid life by isolating ourselves all the time, but for that one night, I sought comfort in knowing that I could build the start of my year up, brick by brick. Tavi Gevinson would call it moments of strange magic. What I’ve really gathered from seeking out these moments in my life, is that it ultimately gives you a deep appreciation for your own company.
I am not writing this to sound melancholy or self-pitying. Of the past three New Years, that one was the most memorable. 2016–17 I spent in an overpriced London nightclub, crushed in a crowd, with a random boy stroking my back during the countdown until I pushed him off. I welcomed 2018 in a cramped student house before we piled into a taxi for an event that didn’t start until after midnight.
Even as a teenager I preferred thinking of New Year’s as a reflective, spiritual time. The first time I went to a New Year’s party with friends was to welcome in 2015 and I rushed outside straight after midnight to stand in the garden alone and watch the fireworks.
I foolishly imagined that my 18th New Year’s Eve was a one-off blip; that my social calendar would be bursting at the seams throughout my 20s. However, this year I found myself, once again, alone on New Year’s Eve.
There were things I could have done or places I could have been if I had really tried to be busy, but as the date crept nearer and nearer, I began to relish the idea of being by myself in the first small hours of 2019.
I am not immune to FOMO. I’m still figuring it out. I know when tonight arrives my mind will inevitably wander to my friends, acquaintances, people I follow on Instagram, who are celebrating in cities across the world and I will probably assume that everyone is having a better time than me.
The social pressure of New Year’s Eve sets up expectations that are impossible to meet. This makes it easy to imagine that the perfect night is happening elsewhere, but whether you are at a party or at home, it will probably be disappointing if you expect a lot from it. And ‘the perfect night’ was only really invented to sell party dresses and overpriced bottles of spirits anyway.
2016's poem. At the time, I thought it would be romantic to stick my first cigarette of the year in my journal but now it's just kinda gross.
After weeks of feeling like I should be willing to do just about anything to avoid spending it alone, just because that’s what people in their early 20s are supposed to do for New Year’s, I finally started to plan my night. Of course, there is always the option not to acknowledge tonight at all. We are, after all, just floating on a rock through space so what even is a year? What is time? Who cares? But, if, like me, you still like the idea of a fresh start and want to make tonight special, then here are some suggestions for how to spend it.
Write something. Write anything.
At parties, midnight to 3am is bursting at the seams with spoken words. Slurred sentences, drug-fuelled epiphanies, shared secrets. I used to try and collect stories at parties, sitting in living rooms, sipping lukewarm beer, watching the room. But, as I’ve got older, I find I forget the specifics in a hungover haze. Tonight, billions of “Happy New Year”s will be uttered across the globe. Schemes will be started. Plans will be hatched. All to be forgotten in the beautiful impermanence of drunk enthusiasm. The spoken word is so transient. Writing provides a centre.
Writing has always been a way for me to keep track of my life. I think of phases of my life in chapter metaphors. Perhaps this is why I still love the start of a new year. It lends itself to that metaphor so well. A year closes like a book. Which leads me to my next point.
Read something meaningful or at least interesting.
I have been reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt this month. I am going to finish it this evening. It is one of the best, and longest books I have read this year. Over 800 pages in, I feel so attached to the characters and I will be sad to finish it, so it seems poetic to finish it as a year ends.
Try and read something that will set an intention; be it a poem, a newsletter, a Twitter thread or a blog post. Learning for the sake of learning is enough. Whenever I can’t sleep, I end up in a Wikipedia hole. Recently I’ve been researching old Hollywood and uncontacted tribes.
Turn off your phone (at least until midnight.)
There’s no point spending this evening (or any evening, actually) endlessly swiping through Instagram stories watching other people who look like they’re having the time of their lives. Switch off your phone. Delete social media apps if you know you’ll be tempted to compare your night with someone else’s. Be present.
Turning your phone back on at midnight to wish loved ones a Happy New Year can be comforting, even if they are celebrating elsewhere. It will remind you that being alone is in your control and alone time does not equal loneliness.
Reflect and prepare for the New Year.
I never really understood the obsession with celebrating the New Year in the way we celebrate other occasions (i.e. getting drunk.) New Year has always felt like a reflective time to me. In my early teens, as soon as midnight had passed, I would always rush up to my room to write in my journal. New Year’s Day was the start of the rest of my life and I didn’t want the rest of my life to start with a hangover.
If you still can’t break the habit of comparing yourself to others, at least think how much better you’ll feel in the morning for spending the night with yourself instead of at a crazy party.
However you are spending New Year’s, I hope you have a good one. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year.