A few days ago an elderly acquaintance, Rose, returned from a Christmas holiday abroad to find that her favourite department store was not having its annual January sale. “ They said they had it before Christmas!” she complained. “You can’t have the January sales before Christmas”. She could not be mollified and it became clear that her whole sense of time and security was temporarily dislocated. For the last twelve years of her life she had always brought her house a present from that store in that January sale and now the rhythm of her personal year had been jarred.
Most of us feel disrupted when something that we rely on changes, altering our routine. Sometimes the level of the impact is initially surprising. 15-year-old Amanda, for example, enjoyed her best friend Sophie’s visits any time of day and night except the ring-fenced period when she watched the television soap “Neighbours” which Sophie didn’t like. “I know it sounds mad when I was spending all Christmas longing to see her. But I did not want to miss the programme and she turned up early just when it had begun. She switched it off and we ended up having an argument and it took a couple of hours to make up”.
76-year-old George was deeply distressed when his daughter’s late arrival to pick him up meant that he missed hearing the Queen’s Speech. “I know she didn’t do it on purpose. She was busy and she did have me to stay for the whole holiday. But somehow it wasn’t Christmas without the Queen’s Speech”.
For Rose, Amanda and George something that clarified their existence within time had been removed without their permission leaving them uncertain. Whilst internal makeup and external circumstances dictate how long it takes someone to recover from everyday knocks, these kinds of experiences highlight the powerful impact of routine and ritual in everyday life.
With Christmas and the New Year still within memory it is a useful time to consider them. Whether we are secular or religious these dates provide us with the annual security of fixed calendar points which, in addition to daily and weekly routines, night and day, the seasons, personal birthdays and national holidays, give us ways of marking our existence in a mysterious universe in a temporal way.
When teaching infants I remember four year old Mary asking me worriedly “Miss- what happened to the old year? Why does there have to be a new one?” Parents with young children and infant school teachers will also relish (or fear) the complex questions from mini philosophers “Why does the clock stop at 12?” “Why are there seven days in a week?” or even “Why is there a week?” Factual answers as to which civilisation measured time in what way and which Norse God which day of the week is named after fail to deal with the philosophical enquiry beneath.
These thoughts are prompted by a letter from Mrs D. “Welcome 1995! My mother of 89 is thrilled to be alive and looking forward to a 90th year, my husband of 58 thinks he is now past it, my 28 year old and his wife held a glittering New Year’s Eve party and didn’t invite us, my grandchild of 3 cried because she had not grown in the night, and our 15 year old has still not forgiven us for not allowing her boyfriend to come for Christmas lunch. We said he could come next year but she doesn’t think she will be going out with him then so she says we have spoilt that forever.”
As well as highlighting the problems of being the “middle” generation Mrs D’s letter raises many time issues. For the middle-aged and elderly who have negotiated their feelings about mortality, time is something to appreciate. For the very young time is something that only grownups and older children are proud possessors of. The 3 year old who wants to grow over- night (or the 12 year old who, on her semi-serious Christmas list wrote- “breasts” as her most longed-for present) has a very different relationship with time than the 58 year old who is worried about the tasks ahead. Mrs D’s fifteen year old understands that her relationship may be temporary. However, that fact has had the effect of making the festival date even more powerful. Christmas 1994 was the only Christmas her friend could have come to lunch on. The painful awareness of the transience of such relationships has been displaced on to the solid calendar.
What about the inclusions and exclusions on special events? Even now there are ruffled Christmas and New Year feelings. When events occur every day of the week they retain social privacy or invisibility. “No-one asks me in the week if my son has phoned me or taken me out” said one resident in an old people’s home. “But because everyone shares Christmas and the New Year everyone thinks they can ask what you are doing and where you are going and that shames me”. College students can feel similarly about weekends. “It is alright to be busy working every night in the week but everyone wants to know who you have seen at the weekend” explained a second year arts student.
Polly, 35 and single, takes a winter sports holiday each Christmas. “It is my way of avoiding these issues”, she explained. “People think I am doing something exotic and don’t burden me with those questions - also it means I don’t have to face being either with family I don’t want to be with or on my own.”
Whilst some families maintain social closeness throughout the life cycle others face the realisation that whilst the parent/s were in charge of social decisions earlier on (Mrs D and her daughter’s boyfriend) often putting immediate family before friends, their grown-up children (Mrs D’s son) might not. Did Mrs D not invite her daughter’s boyfriend because she didn’t like him or because Christmas traditionally is “just” the family and is her son’s party an antidote to that? Whichever, a New Year (relying on the simple number 1- even easier than the ten commandments that require two hands!) gives us a chance to reflect. Happy New Year and letters are welcome to be considered for this column although they cannot be answered personally.