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.”

Historically Speaking: When Women Were Brewers

From ancient times until the Renaissance, beer-making was considered a female specialty

These days, every neighborhood bar celebrates Oktoberfest, but the original fall beer festival is the one in Munich, Germany—still the largest of its kind in the world. Oktoberfest was started in 1810 by the Bavarian royal family as a celebration of Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Nowadays, it lasts 16 days and attracts some 6 million tourists, who guzzle almost 2 million gallons of beer.

Yet these staggering numbers conceal the fact that, outside of the developing world, the beer industry is suffering. Beer sales in the U.S. last year accounted for 45.6% of the alcohol market, down from 48.2% in 2010. In Germany, per capita beer consumption has dropped by one-third since 1976. It is a sad decline for a drink that has played a central role in the history of civilization. Brewing beer, like baking bread, is considered by archaeologists to be one of the key markers in the development of agriculture and communal living.

In Sumer, the ancient empire in modern-day Iraq where the world’s first cities emerged in the 4th millennium BC, up to 40% of all grain production may have been devoted to beer. It was more than an intoxicating beverage; beer was nutritious and much safer to drink than ordinary water because it was boiled first. The oldest known beer recipe comes from a Sumerian hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer, composed around 1800 BC. The fact that a female deity oversaw this most precious commodity reflects the importance of women in its production. Beer was brewed in the kitchen and was considered as fundamental a skill for women as cooking and needlework.

The ancient Egyptians similarly regarded beer as essential for survival: Construction workers for the pyramids were usually paid in beer rations. The Greeks and Romans were unusual in preferring wine; blessed with climates that aided viticulture, they looked down on beer-drinking as foreign and unmanly. (There’s no mention of beer in Homer.)

Northern Europeans adopted wine-growing from the Romans, but beer was their first love. The Vikings imagined Valhalla as a place where beer perpetually flowed. Still, beer production remained primarily the work of women. With most occupations in the Middle Ages restricted to members of male-only guilds, widows and spinsters could rely on ale-making to support themselves. Among her many talents as a writer, composer, mystic and natural scientist, the renowned 12th century Rhineland abbess Hildegard of Bingen was also an expert on the use of hops in beer.

The female domination of beer-making lasted in Europe until the 15th and 16th centuries, when the growth of the market economy helped to transform it into a profitable industry. As professional male brewers took over production and distribution, female brewers lost their respectability. By the 19th century, women were far more likely to be temperance campaigners than beer drinkers.

When Prohibition ended in the U.S. in 1933, brewers struggled to get beer into American homes. Their solution was an ad campaign selling beer to housewives—not to drink it but to cook with it. In recent years, beer ads have rarely bothered to address women at all, which may explain why only a quarter of U.S. beer drinkers are female.

As we’ve seen recently in the Kavanaugh hearings, a male-dominated beer-drinking culture can be unhealthy for everyone. Perhaps it’s time for brewers to forget “the king of beers”—Budweiser’s slogan—and seek their once and future queen.