The old song asks the question, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” I know. I know this year and next year and for many years to come, just as I have known for the last decade.
New Year’s Eve, for me, is spent at our orphanage, with 50 or more of the happiest kids to ever ring in a change in the calendar.
It wasn’t always this way. The truth is, we kind of invented the tradition. Back in December of 2011, I asked what the kids had usually done for New Year’s. The answer was “nothing much.” When there’s no money, nowhere to go, and the average age is around 12 years old, really, what did we expect? Good luck trying to keep kids up until midnight, especially when it’s hot and humid and buggy and the electricity keeps going out.
But recognizing that the New Year is rung in at different times around the globe, I figured why not jiggle the clock until it made sense for us?
Thus we created the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage New Traditional New Year’s Dinner Meal, which, unlike the 10 pm, five-course affair you pay big money for in fancy restaurants, consisted of the three staples of orphanage celebration: pizza, cake, and juice.
Now, it wasn’t easy convincing a nearby pizza place to make 20 pies on New Year’s Eve. We had to pay in full that morning and pick up the pies in the late afternoon. No matter. Our kids get hungry early. The “midnight meal” begins at 6 p.m.
Over the years, we went from eating on the balcony to setting up picnic tables in the yard. There, by the light of solar-charged bulbs, we were able to distribute the pizza, pour the juice, and later cut the sheet cakes into 80 pieces (kids and staff included.)
But that was just the start.
“Fireworks,” I said one year.
“Fireworks?” Yonel, our director, said back.
“Yes. We have to create some.”
He rolled his eyes.
“This isn’t something we have, Mr. Mitch.”
Well, I said to myself. Not yet.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Haiti is a funny place when it comes to resources. It can be hard to find clean water, difficult to buy mouthwash, damn near impossible to find certain fresh produce. But when I pulled Siem aside and said, “Listen, if I give you some money, do you think you can find someone who sells sparklers?” his response was simply, “Do you have $10?”
I gave him the money. A half hour later, he was back with a brown paper bag and 50 sparklers.
We decided to make these sparklers our version of fireworks, symbolic of the passing of one year and the start of another. Wanting to make sure the kids didn’t burn themselves, we cleared out an area of the flower bed, filled it with some extra dirt, and declared it the official “field of dreams” meaning each sparkler carried a child’s wish for the new year.
The kids sensed that something was up when we came in with dirt.
“What are you doing, Mr. Mitch?”
“Preparing for tonight.”
“What is tonight, Mr. Mitch?”
“You know. New Year’s. Where we sing…you know…”
I pictured the moment when the last sparkler went out, and realized that in most places — Times Square, New Year’s Eve concerts, city ballrooms — the stroke of midnight ignited a explosion of “Auld Lang Syne.”
So I gathered the kids in the gazebo that afternoon and taught it to them.
Now, I’d like to say I knew the words, but I didn’t. I still don’t. After “should auld acquaintance be forgot,” I basically, well, forget.
Then again, I figured, our kids didn’t know what “auld” meant. I’m not sure what “auld” means. What mattered was the melody.
So that’s what we learned. The song, at least on our New Year’s Eve, goes like this: “Da-da, da-da-da, da, da-da, da-da, da-da-da-daaaaaaa!...”
And that’s what we sing after each kid plants his or her sparkler, and watches it fizzle until the final sparkler goes out. Then a huge cry of “Happy New Year!” spreads across our little third-of-an-acre, and the kids leap up and down. They scream, they hug, they dance, they leap, they all but fly through the air.
The first time I saw this, I nearly cried. Here were children who a year earlier had not even celebrated this milestone, now so ready to be joyous, accepting new traditions as if they’d been doing them for years.
And now we have been doing them for years. The pizza, the cake, the sparklers, the singing. We have added a new wrinkle, the writing of New Year’s resolutions, two per child, which I then gather and put in an envelope not to be opened for 365 days.
Then, on the 1st of January, each kid read’s aloud the old resolutions, and the others vote on whether he or she made it come true.
If yes, they get a t-shirt.
If no, well, they usually get a t-shirt.
Hey. It’s New Year's.
I know there are fancier ways to do it. I know champagne and tiramisu sound better than pizza and sheet cake. But I honestly wouldn’t trade our simple little New Year’s (the kids are in bed by 9:30!) for the catbird seat next to Anderson Cooper high above Times Square.
Given all the madness, danger, poverty and corruption of this island nation, the fact that its children can so purely and emotionally ring in a new year – with undying hope that this one will be better than the last – is something not only to celebrate but to cherish. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
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