Monday, 31 December 2012

All About the Eve - NYE and the Power of Anticipation

I can't help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It's as glorious as soaring through a sunset... - Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables 

Flight by K-Bladin on deviantart

It's New Year's Eve and through my open window drifts the sound of revelry. The harbour below is pearled with myriad yachts and pleasure-boats, which cluster together in preparation for the spectacular celebratory fireworks. A stunt-plane traces sinuous trails above the city - first soaring higher than the clouds, then diving abruptly to skim metres from the surface of the water. My nearest brother is out partying with friends, and inside the house the rest of my family ready themselves for merriment.

Amidst the happy bustle I wonder, why is it that we celebrate the eve of the New Year more than the day itself? What is so special about festive "eves" in general? In the West it seems many of our greatest cultural traditions occur on the "eve" of an event. Alongside New Year's Eve, both Christmas Eve and All Hallow's Eve spring to mind as nights steeped in story, myth and tradition. Why is anticipation such a potent magic?

Light and shadow are indistinct in the anticipatory mind... 
Anticipation for any desired event is usually more pleasurable than the thing itself. Who can forget the incredible childhood feeling of sleepless, tingling wakefulness the night before a birthday, Christmas Eve, a party or journey – that painful, delightful waiting for the morrow… Excitement and uncertainty mingle in the imagination to form conflicting visions of glory. Lost in our dreams of “what could be”; godlike, we revel in a sense of control – shaping our visions in a fantasy world of unlimited possibility. Anne was right when she compared anticipation to the glorious sensation of “soaring into a sunset” – but with the flying comes the fear of falling. In a world of limitless possibility, the worst can happen – the unthinkable manifests itself in shadowy, fearful forms.
This mingling of desire, excitement and fear at the times of great collective anticipation such as the “eves” of feast days, saints’ days and other celebrations explains their mythic significance. As desire blazes, our certainty in the future wavers, and other things are seen –smoke-shadows dance on on the wall and faces mouth secrets in the flickering flames. Times of anticipation are times of mystery – we want so badly for our beautiful visions to be made real, but we inevitably recognise that the control we have over our imaginings is illusory… Thus we become surrounded by spirits, wraiths, witches and demons – otherworldly beings who wield that elusive control over the future and the past; and we adopt superstitions to attempt to influence the outcome of events.

A look at just a few of the most mythic “eves” of the year reveals an enchanting array of story and belief, many of which were thought to influence the future:

 January 20: St Agnes’ Eve 

The Eve of St Agnes
  They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
  Young virgins might have visions of delight,
  And soft adorings from their loves receive
  Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
  If ceremonies due they did aright;        
  As, supperless to bed they must retire,
  And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
  Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Immortalised in Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes, this hallowed night was believed to give girls enchanted dreams of their lover, if they fasted and slept the night naked without looking behind or to the side.

April 24: The Eve of St Mark’s Day 
St Mark's Eve
If one were to watch the churchyard alone this night, they would espie the souls of all who were to die in the coming year entering the burial ground.
April 30: May Day Eve
May Day Eve
This day was the eve of the Celtic festival of Beltaine, was a day especially associated with the Faerie, and many old Irish observances dealt with mortal attempts to gain grace with the capricious “Good People” and the misdirection of the malevolent influence of witches, using fire and flower in rituals of purification. It was also thought that young girls could discover the name of their husband-to-be by placing a snail between two pewter dishes and watching until midnight. 
June 21 (in 2013 but a Solstice day): Midsummer’s Eve
Midsummer's Eve 
This was also a day under the influence of the Fair Folk, and witches were thought to hold strange revels in the forests or fields… To avert misfortune, people would conduct more purifying rituals of pagan origin, with bonfire-leaping harking back to Celtic Druidic rituals, and wreaths of mugwort woven to “protect man and beast” from eldritch influence.
October 31: All Hallows’ Eve
"Halloween" is a mysterious night with pagan, Celtic and Christian influence revolving around the harvest and the spirit world- ranging from the Ancient Roman festivals of Pomona and Parentalia, the Celtic festival of Samhain, various European harvest festivals and the Christian All Soul’s Night. It is incredibly magical, with traditions ranging from divination, prophecy, spirit-resting and “guising” (trick-or-treating).
December 25: Christmas Eve 
Christmas Rose
This is a night crammed with religious and mythic beliefs and superstitions. In Poland there was a belief similar to the New Year’s Eve beliefs: that however the night passed, so would the coming year. It was a time of miraculous and magical events - at midnight the animals were thought to fall to their knees in homage of the birth of Christ, various plants were thought to flower (such as myrrh and Christmas Rose), Saint Nicholas (Santa) to travel the world bringing gifts to children. It was also a time (similar to May Day Eve) where “maidens” would try to predict their future-husband, and country-folk would try to predict the weather.
December 30: New Year’s Eve 
Revels on New Year's Eve
Superstitions for this night include the familiar one of “ringing in the new year”, making noise at the turn of the year to frighten away evil spirits who were thought to be able to affect the coming year.

New Year's Eve Fireworks
As the New Year approaches, we are filled with pleasant and unpleasant fantasies of the future. But all in all, I think it’s for the best that we are not omniscient and omnipotent. Uncertainty is what fires the imagination and casts the shadows of Mystery. If we were able to control events – then we would lose the delightful, perilous soaring of anticipation. And for all of you, my friends and readers, I wish that your coming year fulfil the gleaming promise of a sunrise, but that enough of the unexpected occurs to keep things interesting.  

Happy New Year.

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