New Year, Old Regrets

From the ancient Babylonians to Victorian England, the year’s end has been a time for self-reproach and general misery

for the Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: ALAN WITSCHONKE

I don’t look forward to New Year’s Eve. When the bells start to ring, it isn’t “Auld Lang Syne” I hear but echoes from the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

At least I’m not alone in my annual dip into the waters of woe. Experiencing the sharp sting of regret around the New Year has a long pedigree. The ancient Babylonians required their kings to offer a ritual apology during the Akitu festival of New Year: The king would go down on his knees before an image of the god Marduk, beg his forgiveness, insist that he hadn’t sinned against the god himself and promise to do better next year. The rite ended with the high priest giving the royal cheek the hardest possible slap.

There are sufficient similarities between the Akitu festival and Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement—which takes place 10 days after the Jewish New Year—to suggest that there was likely a historical link between them. Yom Kippur, however, is about accepting responsibility, with the emphasis on owning up to sins committed rather than pointing out those omitted.

In Europe, the 14th-century Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” begins its strange tale on New Year’s Day. A green-skinned knight arrives at King Arthur’s Camelot and challenges the knights to strike at him, on the condition that he can return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain reluctantly accepts the challenge, and embarks on a year filled with adventures. Although he ultimately survives his encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain ends up haunted by his moral lapses over the previous 12 months. For, he laments (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant translation), “a man may cover his blemish, but unbind it he cannot.”

New Year’s Eve in Shakespeare’s era was regarded as a day for gift-giving rather than as a catalyst for regret. But Sonnet 30 shows that Shakespeare was no stranger to the melancholy that looking back can inspire: “I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

For a full dose of New Year’s misery, however, nothing beats the Victorians. “I wait its close, I court its gloom,” declared the poet Walter Savage Landor in “Mild Is the Parting Year.” Not to be outdone, William Wordsworth offered his “Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on the Eve of a New Year”: “Pondering that Time tonight will pass / The threshold of another year; /…My very moments are too full / Of hopelessness and fear.”

Fortunately, there is always Charles Dickens. In 1844, Dickens followed up the wildly successful “A Christmas Carol” with a slightly darker but still uplifting seasonal tale, “The Chimes.” Trotty Veck, an elderly messenger, takes stock of his life on New Year’s Eve and decides that he has been nothing but a burden on society. He resolves to kill himself, but the spirits of the church bells intervene, showing him a vision of what would happen to the people he loves.

Today, most Americans recognize this story as the basis of the bittersweet 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As an antidote to New Year’s blues, George Bailey’s lesson holds true for everyone: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Ancient Magic of Mistletoe

The plant’s odyssey from a Greek festival to a role in the works of Dickens and Trollope

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Is mistletoe naughty or nice? The No. 1 hit single for Christmas 1952 was young Jimmy Boyd warbling how he caught “mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.” It may very well have been daddy in costume—but, if not, that would make mistletoe very naughty indeed. For this plant, that would be par for the course.

Mistletoe, in its various species, is found all over the world and has played a part in fertility rituals for thousands of years. The plant’s ability to live off other trees—it’s a parasite—and remain evergreen even in the dead of winter awed the earliest agricultural societies. Mistletoe became a go-to plant for sacred rites and poetic inspiration.

Kissing under the mistletoe may have begun with the Greeks’ Kronia agricultural festival. Its Roman successor, the Saturnalia, combined licentious behavior with mistletoe. The naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, noticed to his surprise that mistletoe was just as sacred, if not more, to the Druids of Gaul. Its growth on certain oak trees, which the Druids believed to possess magical powers, spurred them to use mistletoe in ritual sacrifices and medicinal potions to cure ailments such as infertility.

Mistletoe’s mystical properties also earned it a starring role in the 13th-century Old Norse collection of mythical tales known as the Prose Edda. Here mistletoe becomes a deadly weapon in the form of an arrow that kills the sun-god Baldur. His mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeps tears that turn into white mistletoe berries. In some versions, this brings Baldur back to life, carrying faint echoes of the reincarnation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Either way, Frigga declares mistletoe to be the symbol of peace and love.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s powers managed to survive the Catholic Church’s official disapproval for all things pagan. People used the plant as a totem to scare away trolls, thwart witchcraft, prevent fires and bring about reconciliations. But such superstitions fizzled out in the wake of the Enlightenment.

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