The shortest day of the year usually falls around 21 December. This year, as one Twitter user put it recently, “it’s the 296th of March”.
His comment summed up the bizarre limbo that has been 2020. The rules and restrictions, the depressing and often surreal headlines, and the attempts at making real-life events and celebrations somehow as meaningful from behind a screen have all continued in an apparently never-ending loop of sameness. Recent vaccine success – a brilliant achievement – is a big step forward, but it still doesn’t offer a clear end point, or any transition in most people’s lives, yet. We mask up, we wait on.
(If we’re lucky, that is: I realise that tedium is a complaint of those who have not faced life-altering or tragic events this year. Yet, as much as it feels clumsy or ignorant to describe this experience, mundane and insignificant in comparison with what some have faced, it would also feel odd to ignore it.)
With so little to mark the passing of time, the promise of a new year feels of outsized importance. We’ve seen the seasons pass, of course: watched trees bud and blossom and transform and shed, oblivious to the turmoil in the human world. But somehow those changes just emphasised how damned long this was all lasting, how much it was seeping into our everyday lives. And, though a life where socialising can only happen outdoors means you know exactly when it gets too dark to meet in a park, the transitions are gradual. Time just creeps gently onwards and disappears into itself.
New Year, on the other hand, feels like a line in the sand. Sure, it’s a human invention (and one that humans choose to mark on different dates): aside from 60 seconds more daylight, there’s nothing that makes 1 January more meaningful than 31 December to the animal kingdom – nor to the virus kingdom, for that matter. I don’t care. It’s a chance to breathe out and restart. The inside of every Christmas card this year, surely, has said it, in one way or another: here’s hoping for a better 2021.
For months the UK government made much of promising that families and friends could get together by Christmas. In hindsight, that was stupid, since a lot of us were told with just five days notice to stay at home. But, though that caused a lot of anger and upset (and wastage of brussel sprouts), I can grudgingly see where they were coming from.
Rituals matter – and they matter even more when everything else seems to have turned upside down or been lost. Family recipes and candlelight and present-buying and decorating connect you to Christmases past. This year, spending the holiday in my London flat instead of with my family in Ireland, I sent more cards than I ever have, and got a tree and made mulled wine for the first time. Not just me: fairy lights poked out from behind net curtains along my street, already back in November; UK retailer John Lewis said its sales of festive ornaments and trees more than doubled this year.
Age-old festivals and celebrations strengthen communities. But they are also “a refuge”, as historian and mythologist Arthur George writes, “even in our modern secular culture… because they are just about the only occasions on which we all drop our everyday routines in order to live, albeit briefly, in sacred time.” A last-minute dash to amazon.com might not be sacred exactly, but all of it together did feel special. In any case, after all that’s happened this year, if you’re able to send gifts and buy lots of food and enjoy them with someone you care about, well, that is a blessing.
If Christmas is a refuge from our strange or frustrating new routines, New Year offers a way to help us face them again. There’s very little we can plan for and lots that we can’t control, but we can change our smallest chunks of time by resolving to call our mothers more often or to meditate daily. We can feel okay about these resolutions being tiny. Or, because 12 months feels expansive enough, we can dream big and decide to figure out the detail later. If resolutions don’t come off, we can be grateful for what did work out. I wrote down some of the things I’d achieved in 2020; my list included ‘not catching virus’.
The last weeks of 2020, in this part of the world, have been gloomy: soaring Covid cases, Brexit tensions, border scuffles, supply chain headaches, flooding – none of which will just disappear when the clock ticks into a new year. Covid-19 was first picked up by the World Health Organization a year ago today, but I don’t suppose an anniversary matters much to a microbe. Come spring I’m sure we’ll still be working from home and working too hard, and people will still break the rules, and governments will still make decisions that lots of people disagree with.
But there’s got to be some power in the myth of the first month, named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings; his two faces meant he could see both backwards and forwards. When time seems to be standing still, the two perspectives offered by January might help us to reclaim it.