For many years, I was overcome by melancholy on New Year’s Eve. It was one of the saddest evenings of the year for me. Now, I’ve never been what one might call a party animal, although my wife points out that I’m generally one of the last people at a party to take the hint that it’s time to go home. Still, I enjoy the company of friends and family, even if I tend to linger closer to the sidelines rather than inserting myself into the middle of every conversation and song. For a long time, though, New Year’s Eve was the one evening of the year when I would curl up at home, sulk a bit, and wait for the New Year to arrive with little fanfare other than a quick kiss and a quiet rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
My mood puzzled me. Sometimes I thought that it was simply an emotional response to the Yuletide festivities winding down, even though there would still be one big feast left to go at my mother’s home the next day. Other times I would fancy that it reflected some sort of early onset curmudgeonliness. Either way, it didn’t make sense to me.
Growing up, New Year’s Eve had always been a grand affair in our neighbourhood. The people from several households at our end of the street would gather at the Megarry’s house, which had the largest living room, where we would sing and dance and make merry until the wee hours of the morning. When the last minute of the year arrived, we would count down the seconds in unison until crying out together, “Happy New Year!” My father would lead us in singing Auld Lang Syne and the hugs and kisses would then carry on for what seemed like an eternity. Next to Christmas Eve, it seemed like the most magical night of the year. So what had happened to spark such a change in my mood as an adult?
I didn’t think much about it until after Neil Bardal resuscitated the practice of Gamlárskvöld – “the old year’s evening” – at his home in Husavik some two decades ago. Gathering his guests around a bonfire, which was kindled to symbolize “the burning away of everything that worked against happiness in the year past,” Neil explained how his grandfather, the legendary Arinbjörn S. Bardal, had introduced Gamlárskvöld in Winnipeg about a century earlier. Neil’s grandfather had been inspired by his own memories of New Year’s traditions back home in Iceland.
A few years later, as we were approaching the beginning of a new millennium, I got it into my head to host a Gamlárskvöld gathering in Winnipeg. As I planned for the evening and worked on the invitation list, I noticed I was approaching New Year’s Eve in a healthier frame of mind that year and, by the time the evening arrived, I was positively excited. The weather was cold but otherwise cooperative as friends and family arrived for the festivities. Neil Bardal showed up with vínarterta and a treasure trove of stories to bless this urban initiative. Over the course of the evening, people drifted between the house and the outdoor fireplace and they tossed handwritten notes and objects onto the fire to be burned away to ash. Inside, we tuned the television to the holiday firelog channel, while conversations flowed freely, switching to Times Square as midnight approached. We rang in the New Year with joyous song and some guests lingered halfway until dawn. When it was all over, I fell fast asleep – contented and glowing.
Come morning, I finally realized what had happened so many years earlier to rob the evening of its charm for me. My father died in November during my first year of university and, a little over a month later, only a small handful of people gathered for New Year’s Eve. It was a muted affair, everyone filled with grief at my father’s sudden and unexpected passing, so it felt more like a second funeral than a celebration of the turning year. It finally struck me that, although we always gathered at our neighbours’ home, it was my father who was “the founder of the feast,” as Bob Cratchit would have said.
Without realizing it, my lingering grief over Dad’s death and more than twenty years of New Year’s Eve melancholy were burned away on the fire that evening. I’ve continued to host a Gamlárskvöld gathering ever since and, once again, it has become one of the most magical nights of the year for me. Each year, friends and family alike toss things upon the fire – mortgages, loans, divorce decrees, employment contracts, funeral cards, handwritten notes – to burn away as the old year draws to a close. And some creative souls have even taken to writing down things they hope for in the coming year, seeking to burn their aspirations into reality.
As we burn away another year, may we cherish the things that have blessed us, let go of the things that have diminished our happiness, and carry the flame of the midnight fire forward to light us along our way.
This post first appeared, with a slight variation, as the editorial in the January 1, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.