THE HEALTHIEST attitude to New Year's Eve can be summed up in the old party-goers' koan: expect less, you'll enjoy more. But every year it's the same, sad route: past the office party vomitorium, through the war-torn family Christmas and the doldrums of the year's last days before ending at the monumental anti-climax of NYE itself.

sunday, bloody sunday

It is no less than traditional that NYE should be a shimmering social mirage that dissolves as soon as one gets close and this year the authorities are colluding in our foregone disappointment. NYE 1995/6 falls on a Sunday, making licenses for pubs and clubs more difficult to obtain.

The problem derives from the Sunday Observance Act of 1780, which makes it an offence on Sunday to indulge in the godless act of charging admission for premises in which dancing is taking place; a caveat which applies to tonight as well, and lasts from midnight on Saturday to midnight on Sunday.

"The Government promised to abolish it by this winter but didn't," says Francis Keegan, chief licensing officer for Westminster council, who has had his work cut out recently by pub and club owners pleading special circumstances in order to get dispensations. As well as by getting a licence, this complicated law may be circumvented by claiming a club is private, though it is expected that many venues and pubs - for the Act also affects those pubs with musical entertainment - will be ignoring the legislation, especially since some councils have offered a general goodwill exemption. Extensions on pub opening times will also be affected and hours are expected to be even shorter than usual. A police spokesman says that while there will be a bit of "give and take," the force is duty bound to uphold the law: "We won't turn a blind eye."

goodbye to nelson

Trafalgar Square is for the desperate who find themselves in London with nothing better to do, and the number of people who attend is stable at an estimated 70,000 per year.

"It's the sort of thing that people do once in their lives - once is usually enough," says a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police. "It's uncomfortable and a public safety problem: the capacity for Trafalgar Square is about 20,000 but many more attend. It's not a lot of fun: there's no entertainment or conveniences and drink is not allowed on to the square. We recommend people don't go - especially not with children or animals but we have to accept that people turn up in large numbers." There have been deaths at the square; additional menaces come from a nasty new trend to bring fireworks.

first foot it

Scotland is considered the prime site for a throbbing NYE - known, of course, as Hogmanay - in which tradition dictates the revellers "first foot" from house to house bearing a lump of coal and a bottle of Scotch. While Scotland still makes a major NYE effort, with ceilidhs and bands in every town, fewer people open their doors to strangers than before, though in the low-crime Highlands this practise still occurs.

In recent years, Hogmanay has become more corporate, with local investment and municipal involvement. Aberdeen is one such city with a big programme of events, but the top dog - claimed to be the biggest NYE celebration in Europe - is Edinburgh's Hogmanay, a five day festival between 29 December and 2 January featuring candlelit concerts, street theatre, open air concerts and events for children. It ends at 3am each night. Edinburgh's Hogmanay Information Line: 0891 881996.

great balls of fire

Meanwhile, a more elemental event takes place up-country in Stonehaven, Deeside: the annual Swinging of the Fireballs. Related to fire festivals such as Shetland's Up-Helly-Aa, the ceremony begins at midnight and participants - 50 strong, many female, some as old as 70 - bring along a burning ball on the end of a wire. It is then swung around the head as those taking part march down the high street to the sound of the local pipe band. Only one house has been set on fire, though spectators tend to wear old clothes to avoid burn holes. A similarly rustic occasion takes place just south of the border: the Allendale Tar Barrels, where 45 hefty chaps heave burning barrels down the street of this Northumbrian town.

Those still interested in a campaign of avoidancy may wish to know that NYE is a good time to travel, as surprisingly few wish to see in the new year stuck in economy class 33,000 feet up. "The fares come down quite a bit in between Christmas and New Year - they go back up on the first of January and there is usually lots of availability," says a spokesman for long-haul flight specialist Bridge The World (0171 911 0900). Some flights may even arrive in time to celebrate: travellers to the east coast of the United States on the morning of the 31st of December will arrive in the afternoon - though it will be more difficult for those flying to Australia and New Zealand to get to the beach in time for the party unless they set off a day or two before NYE. On a flight during NYE, there will usually be some in-flight celebrations, though a cabin consensus may have to be reached on when midnight is.

wait for it ...

If you think that most New Year's Eves are a huge let down, just wait for the turn of the Millennium which should prove to be the most tantalising disillusionment of all time. What's more, we get two tries: some think it should be the 1999-2000 cusp; others feel the 2000-2001 party marks when the siecle finally grinds to a fin. Either way, it will make next Sunday seem small scale, so relax.

OLIVER BENNETT

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