GENEVA — "What are you doing for New Year's Eve?" A simple question that comes up in December, but is enough to make some people break into a cold sweat.

"For years, New Year's Eve has given me a headache," says Sonia, a 26-year-old communications student at the University of Geneva. "You ask yourself whom you'll spend it with, what you'll do, whether you'll go out or not, and so on. In the end, you always have fun, but before the evening actually comes, it's a pain."

It's true that it's not always easy to choose the kind of New Year's Eve you want. It's like that episode in the French mini-series Bref, where the protagonist, who can't make up his mind, goes from party to party on New Year's Eve. In the end, at midnight, he "celebrates" it with a homeless man in the métro.

"There are so many possibilities that it's difficult to choose one party. That's part of the game: You can always find something better," says Martine Segalen, a French ethnologist.

To party at any cost is a tiring obsession. Chantal, a 24-year-old literature student at the University of Geneva, is content these days with not planning anything. "As a teenager, I always felt I was forcing myself to make New Year's Eve the best party of the year. There's the idea that if you don't go out on that particular night, you're a loser. Now I find it overrated," she laughs. "I realized that my best New Year's Eve was a raclette dinner with a friend where we ended up watching SpongeBob SquarePants. We went to sleep at quarter past midnight!"

An omen for the coming year

But why such a fuss over one party? "It's one of the days when everybody's expected to be celebrating. There's an expectation, almost an obligation, to be harmonious, happy," explains Christian Staerklé, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Lausanne.

And if New Year's Eve does not live up to expectations, the consequences seem more serious than if just any old party flops. "There's this popular belief that it's an omen for the coming year," says the professor. "If the party was bad, that could be a negative sign for the future."

Because New Year's Eve, also known as Saint Sylvester's Day, is packed with symbols: good resolutions, 12 strikes at midnight, fireworks. "For many people, it's a rite of passage, and they invest a lot of hope in the new year," says Staerklé.

But Segalen tries to put it into perspective. "The obligation to celebrate weighs mainly on the young. There are also thousands of people who decide to simply stay home in front of their TVs."

Why not improvise?

So, how to celebrate this Dec. 31 without stress? Sonia found the solution two years ago: "I spend the evening with my boyfriend and his friends. Even if I miss my friends, I'm with him. And not having to organize anything and letting myself be led allows me to have fewer expectations and therefore less pressure."

Chantal prefers to improvise: "I don't feel like letting the evening take up any space in my head. I might go somewhere at the last minute. I'd like to feel completely free to celebrate, not to celebrate, or maybe even to give my time to others, as a volunteer, for example," she says.

But one thing for sure is that Chantal has learned with the years to lower her expectations: "The best party of my life was never a New Year's Eve party, that's for sure!"

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