Thoughts at the Turning of the Year

At about 9pm on December the 31st my mother would get out the ginger wine.  My father would be listening to Jimmy Shand playing Scottish music on the radio and he and my mother would dance the Gay Gordons round the living room - perhaps an effect of the ginger wine.  My parents - teetotal Methodists - were convinced that ginger wine was non alcoholic - likewise the neighbour's home made blackcurrant liqueur which had a kick like a shire horse.

If the weather was fine, some of our neighbours from across the fellside might walk over for mince pies and Christmas cake and a glass of a supposedly non-alcoholic beverage. My father, a congenital arsonist if ever there was such a thing, would have a roaring fire going in the black range. Sometimes it was so hot the metal glowed, almost transparent.

When midnight boomed from the radio, we would all join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne before my father went outside with the salt cellar, a piece of bread, and a glass of ginger wine.  Then he would put a piece of coal in his pocket from the shed and come back into the house.  He was a corn gold Irishman, not the dark first-foot required by the myth.  My superstitious grandmother was convinced that that was the cause of our bad luck on the farm.  If my grandparents happened to be staying with us, my Tyneside Italian grandfather would be made to do the honours.  It must never be a woman - that was very bad luck indeed. The year my grandmother accidentally came in first became the year my grandfather died.

Only when the first-foot had safely crossed the threshold were the rest of us allowed out into the yard to look at the stars, wincing from the cold. It was a moment that felt hugely significant. I remember being full of anticipation at what this wonderful new year might bring. It was a blank page to be written on, a space for optimistic dreaming. For my mother it was different - she used to talk about the war; about spending New Year in a bomb shelter; about watching London burn when she went to join her first husband for his embarkation leave. And she would shed tears and remember David in his iron tomb at the bottom of the South Atlantic.  I was sometimes impatient with her, in that unthinking way that children have, because I loved my father and felt a deep loyalty towards him.

Back inside again, there was the ceremony of changing the calendar on the kitchen wall, opening it to the first page of the new year.  Upstairs in my bedroom I would collect together all my little bits of memorabilia - birthday cards, photographs, postcards, letters, programmes - and put them into a chocolate box.  Then I would write the date on the lid and tie it up with ribbon.  I still have the memorabilia, now pasted into scrap books, and the memories of New Year spent on that remote hill farm in the Lake District.

I always find it strange that so much stress is put on the 31st December, the last day of the Gregorian Calendar, when, in practice, we step into a new year every day of our lives and there are two other major calendar systems in the world (Chinese and Islamic) that celebrate a new year at very different times.  The Gregorian Calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory in October 1582 to replace the inaccurate Julian Calendar as a way of reconciling the differences between the 12 month organisational calendar and the lunar cycle - in the Christian church the celebration of Easter is still calculated by the lunar cycle. The flawed 12 month Julian calendar had a 10 month Roman predecessor with an 8 day week and some unspecified winter period to even up the earth's 365.24 day rotation round the sun.  The Gregorian Calendar introduced the idea of the Leap Year to round it out every four years. It's all a bit of a mess with a bit of fudging round the edges.

So why don't we use the Lunar Cycle as a means of organising yearly events?  Our lives are governed by the sun and the moon - and the earth's circuit round the sun is perfectly rhythmic without our little adjustments.  Why aren't we celebrating the real turning of the year on December the 21st rather than an artificial date 10 days later?

Globalisation means that the Chinese and Islamic calendars, both based on the lunar cycle, are increasingly giving way to the Gregorian, which means that New Year fireworks go off in almost every country of the world at midnight on December 31st.  I watched them on television. But this year there was no sense of anticipation, just a feeling of existential dread.  With Trump in the White House, Brexit on the horizon, half the world in turmoil, millions in refugee camps, there didn't seem much to celebrate.  Anyone else feeling like this?


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