A New Year Fit for Christmas

by Gary Hall.

We’re half-way through the Christmas festival and New Year comes around. In these quarters of the city, fireworks have been lighting up the sky and alarming the cats since early evening, and auld acquaintances are feeling more distant than usual. A time of recollection and anticipation has a peculiar poignancy this time around, and I’m thinking about how New Year fits with ongoing Christmas celebrations. After all, the blending of Christmas and New Year is an almost incidental outcome of the mashup of Roman civil arrangements and shifting calendars, ecumenical and imperial assertions, Egyptian and Greek and who knows what other influences, sun and moon and deep-rooted pagan instincts. Along the way, the January 1st celebration has been sometimes outlawed, and New Year has sometimes been on Christmas Day. Or in March. Or Easter.

The near-concurrence of Christmas and New Year may mean little more than a bracketing of extended winter holidays for folks whose lives are not mapped onto a Christian religious calendar (and who don’t need to work the in-between days). So it may not strike many people as odd when Christmas joy and festivity is dissipated, long before we get to Epiphany, by all the toning-up, dieting-down, sorting-it-out compensation for supposed or actual festive indulgence. For those of us who sense the disruption, however, it may be wise to sit lightly to the more punishing forms of new-start, clean-slate rhetoric loaded onto the idea of New Year.

Opting for January deprivations not only curtails Christmas celebration, but runs contrary to an instinctive need for warmth, rest and comfort in the midwinter darkness of these northern isles. I can still be startled by how quickly some people want to dismantle and hide away Christmas decorations in what seems like an urgent dress-rehearsal for Spring cleaning. Perhaps Springtime would be the better season for a New Start celebration. Certainly the Easter resonances make sense, from a Christian perspective. Christmas does, however, bring its own resonances: divine birth, new beginnings, the connection is not complicated. In which case, taking a cue from the baby in the manger, our New Year might be better marked by nourishment, sleep, nesting – or, from another perspective, protecting those who are vulnerable – rather than restricted diets and new gym regimes. Right now, I hazard a guess that we could all do with as much comfort and joy as we can find. Personal excesses and distractions can be dealt with some other time.

As it is, New Year habits break into Christmas festival with all the associated babble of clean slates, new brooms, fresh starts, taking back control, and so on. Surely there are better metaphors for a Christmastide festival. Some are quite central to Christian tradition, such as St Paul’s notion of being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

What if we celebrate a Christmassy New Year with attention to the renewal of our collective minds rather than our bodies or budgets or personal ambitions? If the idea is appealing, and if there is any substance in the adage that we are what we eat, then perhaps we can subvert the seasonal diet-controllers by giving attention to the feeding of minds rather than stomachs, in anticipation of the kind of transformation which tends to come by surprise rather than by programme. Whether or not we are grappling with regret about over-eating or lockdown inactivity, we can decide that this year will be enriched by our ingesting the kind of life-giving narratives, ideas, images, visions and perceptions miraculously captured and passed on through text, film, music and conversation. We can wallow, venture, become immersed in life-giving ideas and stories, poignant drama and joyful comedy through which minds might be renewed, and transformation kindled. As the Spirit blows where she will, daring us to think bigger than post-Christmas diets and premature Spring-cleaning, she may show us the way to loosen our reliance on such insufficient morsels as the desiccated remnants of Second World War ideology or imperial backwash which have too often stifled our collective imagination and distorted our life together. Perhaps we will, after all, be born again, and again, and again. Perhaps this is what happens when Christmas collides with New Year.

3 thoughts on “A New Year Fit for Christmas”

  1. What should form part of our New Year’s spiritual diet? When we supplement our staple diet of scripture and prayer, are we like the stereotypical British tourist on his first package holiday abroad, demanding traditional English fare and refusing to try ‘foreign’ food, in case it disagrees with him? We will not broaden our understanding, if we only consume books and other materials that reflect our own beliefs and avoid more challenging spiritual foods. We will simply reinforce our views that we are the only ones who have the truth, widen the social distance between ourselves and anyone outside our spiritual bubble, and consolidate our prejudices. Our outreach role isn’t to bring others to where we are in our faith; it is to help them to make the next best step for them towards God from where they are now on their personal journey of faith. To achieve this, we need to listen to other views and to the concerns of people outside the church. As we widen our appreciation of the range of spiritual foods available and become more aware of differing tastes, we should be better placed to present the gospel through a menu that caters for the variety of spiritual needs in our communities.

    We have to provide the right food for individuals, if people are to flourish. If someone has not eaten for a long time, we would not provide a full three-course meal. We would choose something nutritious but also easy to digest. Should this not apply in the spiritual realm also? Too often we just offer table d’hôte, as it were, in the form of a full traditional church service. Some of this is indigestible for anyone unused to it, because of the strange church-speak in hymns and readings, like ‘the lamb on the throne’. There are a lot of spiritually hungry people in this country who need something other than a full service or other formal church meeting.

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    1. Well said Pavel. It is so refreshing and nourishing to be reminded that otherworldliness and piety are generally unhealthy foods. I get most of my nourishment in my everyday interaction out there in the secular world. Church services often leave me hungry.

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  2. Reading your post two weeks late, it reminds me that the tradition of holding the Covenant Service at the beginning of January rather than the beginning of the Connexional Year means that it too can be held hostage by the “clean slates / take back control” mentality of the New Year. It needn’t – but it can be. It was good to see the Methodist Way of Life incorporated into the resources for Covenant Sunday this year but this, too, risks the MWOL being received even subliminally as a way to “get a grip” on living a Christian life in the same way we commit to exercise or diet. No criticisms here…. just naming the risks.

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