It seems from December 1st through to January 31st everyone and their dog is wishing you a ‘Happy New Year’. Your family does it, your friends do it, your colleagues do it and, even, strangers you met in the queue buying milk will wish you well in the new year. As the days tick closer to the inevitably end-of-year dongs of Big Ben it seems that the urge to wish people health and happiness becomes an uncontrollable festive-compulsion. In many ways, it can be seen as just part and parcel of the holiday season. It is a well-meaning sentiment that easily attaches onto ‘Merry Christmas’ almost like a habit, so much so that the one phrase feels complete without the other. Like homemade cakes and sustainable clothing, new year well wishes are difficult to disagree with.
But what does it really mean to wish someone a ‘happy new year’?
Philosophically speaking, if we are all collectively wishing each other these squishy-inside-feel-good sentiments then the sentiment isn’t really there to begin with, is it? In fact, it is just a habit, an expectation and a banal, meaningless statement that is recycled every year without thought.
Now, before I continue, I want to point out that I am not the Grinch! I don’t hide up in a cave grunting and hissing at anyone who so dares to wish me well. In fact, in the Christmas cards I write I always wish people a good new year. For those friends I won’t see again until some months into the next year I always hug them that bit tighter, wishing them that the next year will treat them better than this one. These wishes are extremely meaningful, they are for those closest to me who I love and want the best for.
Meaningless ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’
Instead, I take issue with meaningless wishes, the ones that are socially expected and insincere. Take for example the fact I currently work in a restaurant. As our customers leave it is expected of us to smile, wave and muster our sweetest voice and wish them ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’. Even if, that is, the customer has been a complete nightmare to deal with. Now, when I say it is expected of us to do these well wishes I more accurately mean that it is compulsory. We have to send these wishes even if we do not want to. Obviously, my workplace is just one example but same goes for employees of nearly every other industry and business type going.
Why are we using meaningless wishes?
The main reason for the compulsory nature of these sentiments is to make the customer leave feeling happy and, therefore, want to return. It has no personal benefit to us as strangers, as employee and customer, to wish each other well into the New Year. In fact, it only benefits the business itself who will see return custom and spend during the next financial year. The falsehoods of these sentiments is just another way in which capitalism’s pervasive influence is tied up with culture. Specifically, Western Judeo-Christian culture which sees Christmas fall on December 25th and New Years on the 31st.
Here, we can see a dominate social narrative. We are conditioned to believe we have to wish someone who we do not know and will probably never see again a ‘Happy New Year’ because it is the norm, an expectation and socially uncouth if we don’t. But, most of the time it is ingenuine, a simple reflex action like blinking. It is about as genuine as McDonalds running environmental campaigns whilst their cattle produce huge amounts of methane.
We don’t talk about the sheer insincerity of New Year’s wishes as we don’t want to come across, well, like a Grinch. If you give the topic a quick search on Google all that comes up is a list of articles and blog posts examining when it appropriate to stop saying ‘Happy New Year’, rather than whether it is at all. Interestingly though, Dean Obeidallah for CNN does point out that New Year’s wishes well into January are ‘so insincere. Hollow, not heartfelt, like something you say to a co-worker you really don’t know well to fill an awkward silence, a small step up from, “That’s some weather we’re having, huh?”’. Acknowledgement of the issue is, at least, somewhat out there.
Noting all of this, I offer an alternative.
Now, I do not expect everyone to stop saying ‘Happy New Year’ to the cashier in Tesco or your regular postwoman after reading this article. Instead I believe we should make a distinction between the well wishes we give our friends, family and loved ones and the ones we give to strangers. In essence, we need a distinction between the genuine and the ingenuine because some of our well wishes should hold more weight than others.
When you wish a loved one a ‘Happy New Year’ tell them what you are wishing for them. Is it a promotion at work? Improved mental health? Encouragement for upcoming exams? The wishes that they can finally get that house they want, or a car, or a dream holiday? You know your loved ones well enough that you would know what they are wishing for, making your well wishes heartfelt, genuine and true.