What if you threw a millennium, and nobody cared?

Sticklers for accuracy are breaking out the party hats Sunday to celebrate the 'real' turn of the millennium.

Last year on New Year's Eve, Eliette Markhbein and her husband stood beneath the Eiffel Tower arm in arm, dressed to the nines, as fireworks lit up Paris, reveling in the coming of a new century and all the promise it brings.

This year, they're having a few friends over to their New York apartment.

"That was the real millennium because all the celebrations were going on last year," she says. "There's nothing going on this year ... anywhere."

Well, almost anywhere. Denver and Las Vegas, trying to make up for dud parties last year, plan on putting the country and rest of the world straight. So do Cuba and China, two nations that refused to be duped by all the premature hype last year.

They're marking the "real" millennium, the actual clicking of the Gregorian calendar to year one in century 21. For the world's literal minded, that's the date expected to mark the beginning of the golden age - or the apocalypse. But most of the rest of the world is already millenniumed-out.

Like Ms. Markhbein, they're simply looking forward to a nice, traditional New Year's Eve. And they've had enough of the fin-de-siecle fantasizing to last another thousand years. Even scholars are already putting it to bed - despite the fact that it hasn't really happened yet.

"I'd say the millennium gets a C-minus in terms of its importance," says Marshall Fishwick, a professor of humanities at Virginia Tech. "And that's being generous. I'd give it a D, if I had it in class."

Indeed, all the hype - apocalyptic and otherwise - began with a bang and ended with a whimper. Remember Y2K and the prospect of an international cybermeltdown? Or how about all those K-mart shoppers with carts full of bottled water?

All that fear-mongering got to Kimberly Nelson, a receptionist from Old Lyme, Conn.

"I worried about it for weeks, my husband thought I was nuts," she says. "He kept telling me, 'It's not even the millennium yet, there's no year zero!' "

Still, she stocked the house with extra water and took some money out of the bank. This year, Ms. Nelson is not worried at all, "because there's no hype."

Then, of course, there were the rosy predictions. The heralding of the new digital economy that was supposed to bring freedom and democracy throughout the world. And then there was the ever-booming stock market, which some optimistic prognosticators contended represented a new era of expanding opportunities for people of all classes. (Remember that booming market?)

"I think you'll find the people who were the most for the millennium, were those who could get the most out of it" says Professor Fishwick. "For instance, the big corporations pumping it as the great free-market society. Well, look what the great new free-market society did for California this year: They can't get any heat!"

But sticklers for accuracy aren't particularly worried about the failure of the golden age to appear last year. Clearly, it wasn't time yet. Just ask Denver and Las Vegas. Last year, both cities' millennial efforts flopped spectacularly. As the networks' spotlight moved from glittering celebrations in Paris to New York to Minneapolis, they tripped on downtown Denver. It was pretty much empty, thanks to heavy security precautions designed to prevent the kind of apocalyptic riots that have broken out after Super Bowl games.

Now, with plans for a day- and night-long celebration for more than 100,000 people, Denver's mayor is boasting that they've actually got it "right" and everyone else had it "wrong."

Las Vegas is playing a similar game of millennial semantics. Last year, the city fathers looked at the glittering Vegas strip and decided there were lights enough. Who needs fireworks in Vegas? The evening was so anticlimactic, this year they plan on launching 13,000 firework shells from atop 12 hotel-casinos "canopying" the sky with the biggest fireworks display in the city's history.

But New York, which likes to think of itself as the undisputed king of all New Year's celebrations, millennial or otherwise, is far from impressed with its Western colleagues' efforts.

"It's important to point out that the real millennium is, to some extent, a state of mind," says Brendan Sexton, president of the Times Square Business Improvement District. "And if we say the millennium was last year, it was!"

Indeed, the millennium, like the calendar, is nothing more than a human creation. But as students of mythology, like Gene Toews of Highland Ranch, Colo., point out, its real significance lies in the human heart.

"The millennial myth ... engages us with our fantasies around the mysteries and struggles around life and death," he says.

That was true, in a way, for Ms. Markhbein and her husband. The night of their millennium - with all of Paris lit up in celebration - was a pivotal experience she'll never forget.

"It was probably the most romantic thing we've done in 22 years of marriage," she says. "It was just incredible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.