The Best Punishment for a Horrible Year

An illustration of a baby sitting on top of a head.
Jonathan Twingley

If 2020 were a person, what sort of punishment would they deserve? And given the sensible prohibitions against torture in human-rights law, what would be the next best option?

The conceit of personifying a year dates back to at least the ancient Greeks and, in American newspaper culture, to the early 20th century, when the cartoonist J. C. Leyendecker established a tradition of drawing New Year’s babies on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. In that publication and elsewhere, the New Year’s baby was sometimes accompanied by Father Time. “Baby New Year will age and eventually grow into the old man by the end of the year in December,” Good Housekeeping once explained, “at which time he will then turn over his timekeeping duties—and impart his aged wisdom—to the next Baby New Year born on January 1.” Here they are kicking off 1911 together.

An illustration of a Saturday Evening Post cover with an old man and an infant.
J.C. Leyendecker / The Saturday Evening Post

The Old Man conceit appeared in prose too, as in this 1920 description of New Year’s Eve revelry: “On the streets the noise-making started at 5 o’clock,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “when the whistles announced the close of the work day and gave many an extra hoot of derision at Old Man 1919 as he went slumping through the shadow toward the Golden Gate and out into the endless night beyond.” I think I know why Old Man 1919 was deserving of extra derision.

Let’s revive the Old Man for 2020, to bear the brunt of our hurt and rage. A global pandemic and egregious police killings and urban riots and spiking murders and wildfires and floods in Asia and the Beirut explosion and Uighur concentration camps and canceled Olympics? Go away and die, Old Man!

Alas, I oppose the death penalty. But I’d gladly frog-march Old Man 2020 to The Hague, try him for crimes against humanity, imprison him in one of those clear-walled cells that housed Magneto, and subject him to what he’s inflicted on us: severe travel restrictions, but all the Instagram posts from Travel + Leisure and @gypsea_lust that he can scroll.

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He can have visitors, but only via Zoom. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will manage his geriatric care with CNN’s Chris Cuomo as quality-control supervisor. Occasionally, President Donald Trump will appear to extol his own greatness. And for hard-to-explain reasons, there will never be quite enough toilet paper for comfort.

Don’t fret about cruel and unusual punishment: His life sentence will last only until the new year. Old Man 2020 expires by definition at midnight on January 1, 2021, when rather than ascend to heaven, which last happened to Old Man 1989, or fade into the limbo of evening mist, as is typical, he’ll descend to the same circle of hell as Old Men 541, 1346, 1492, and 1918, among others.

Poof. The moment he’s gone, Baby New Year 2021 shall appear. “Welcome!” we’ll exclaim, grateful to break with a painful year and hopeful that a better one is ahead. “Now let’s get you vaccinated.”