By Maria Saporta
Growing up, our family’s favorite holiday celebration was New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Because of our Jewish heritage, we didn’t really celebrate Christmas (even though we almost always had a tree in our home, and some years we’d go to the Catholic church on Christmas Eve to hear Christmas carols).
And because we were non-practicing Jews, we really didn’t celebrate Hanukah. My parents had lived through World War II in Europe — and on their one-year wedding anniversary, they were found by the Germans and captured. My father escaped and joined the Greek resistance, and my mother spent a year in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Their experiences during those dark days in human history made them question the existence of God, and that’s why my sister and I were raised without institutionalized religion.
So the one holiday we could celebrate unconditionally was New Years. We would exchange gifts on New Years (which made economic sense because we could take advantage of after-Christmas sales).
But most important were the family traditions surrounding the end of one year and the coming of another.
Our favorite New Year’s Eve location was at the highest point of Peachtree Street downtown where we could watch the playful, fanciful neon Coca-Cola sign twirl in the new year. The clock would alternate between time and temperature, and our excitement would grow as we watched the clock flash closer to midnight.
Most years, hundreds, if not thousands, of Atlantans would join us at our version of Times Square. And then one year, when crime had become particularly onerous in downtown, we stood on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets with only a half dozen other brave souls.
Then in 1979, the news broke that the Coca-Cola sign was going to come down because Georgia-Pacific Corp. (which was building its U.S. headquarters on the adjacent block) wanted it removed.
My sister, Elena, and I launched a stealth “Save the Sign” campaign urging everyone to welcome 1980 at the sign. We printed postcards and posted them every where we could. We sent out notices to media organizations anonymously.
On the 6 p.m. news on New Year’s Eve, all the local TV stations teased to the big party/protest planned that night at the Coke Sign. We began to get nervous about what we had done.
So I called the downtown police zone, and with my best Southern accent, I told the officer that we wanted to go to the party at the Coke sign but we wanted to make sure the police would be there.
“Come on down,” the officer said. “Ma’am, don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll be down there all over the place.”
And what a party it was. We closed down Peachtree Street as thousands of revelers celebrated the new year and the sign.
I wrote about those memories in 2002 when I was at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Doug Daft, then the CEO of the Coca-Cola Co., read the story and ordered a return of the sign. A new spot overlooking Woodruff Park was found, and a new Coca-Cola sign was installed in 2003.
But when we went there for New Year’s Eve, we were disappointed. First of all, the nearby Peach Drop was in full swing. And then to make matters worse, the clock on the sign was several minutes slow. So we were waiting for the clock to say 12:00, and the Peach Drop’s fireworks had been blazing for several minutes. It was a bit anti-climatic.
In the 1990s, we adopted another tradition — First Night in Midtown. The family-oriented celebration of arts and culture was a perfect fit for our family. I can still see my mother’s face light up and her squeals of delight when the fireworks would brighten the skies at midnight.
We also had another tradition that began in the early 1970s when one of my mother’s closest friends, Richard Munroe, and his partner, Luis Maza, would invite us and dozens of their friends for collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
We adopted that tradition after Dick Munroe passed away.
For 19 years (until this year), I would invite hundreds of folks for a New Year’s Day feast of collards, black-eyed peas, wonderful friends with many of the best musicians performing great tunes as we danced.
What a fabulous way to welcome each new year. But this year, I needed a break. I literally couldn’t get my act together to throw the party this year.
But my warm feelings about New Year’s remain. We can start each year with a blank slate that holds unlimited possibilities. It is a day of innocence and wonder. What will the new year bring? How can we use the passing of a day to get a new lease on life?
When I was in college, I read a news story that more people commit suicide on Jan. 4 than any other day. That’s the day when people realize that despite the new year, they are stuck in the old lives and facing all the same problems.
But I’ve never felt those post-New Year’s blues. (I also don’t saddle myself with unrealistic resolutions and false hopes).
For me, the new year means that the darkest days are behind us (winter solstice) and now the days are getting longer and spring is only a few months away.
On a more ominous note, some believe the world will end in 2012. When my children and I visited the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza this past December, a tour guide told us of how the Mayan wisemen — amazing astronomers, mathmeticians, scientists — foresaw the lining up of the planets in December 2012 — a phenomenon that would cause catastrophic events on earth.
As part of the Baby Boom generation, we’ve been living with the possibility of the end of the world since we were children. We had to be aware of the nearest Fall-Out shelters where we would go in the event of a nuclear war. We have lived through the Cold War and the fear that any country with nuclear power could set off the last world war.
We can choose to dwell on all the possible calamaties that could happen and worry ourselves to death.
But for me, the new year is a time to rejoice all that we have and to pledge to do what we can to protect and improve our special place in the world.
Happy New Year!