New beginnings for a new year

Happy New Year to you all – let’s make it a good one!

Well, here we are – Christmas is over and the year has turned. I have been thinking a lot this year about why we celebrate Christmas quite so madly – often getting ourselves into debt! As I understand it, here in our wee corner of the world the festive season used to be kept in a slightly different fashion in that Christmas Day was always a religious day – a day spent in prayer rather than feasting. At least that was true among the members of the lower Presbyterian denominations – I imagine that the Catholic community on South Uist kept Christmas much as Catholics anywhere! Members of any of the churches were of course always able to let their hair down at the start of the new year if they so wanted, and Hogmanay became the time of celebration. There are those round here who still keep the holidays in this way – although I heard the other day that two of the churches in the village are now to close as the congregations have fallen too low and they have no ministers, which is a great pity.

Collage of scenes from Up Helly Aa celebrationsHowever, back to my first thought. I had been thinking that, given that nowadays not so many people in our society are practising Christians – although we all love the Carols! – maybe the main reason is just a celebration of life. Life and Family as my elder son so succinctly put it. As my friend, Lyn, said there must have been a winter festival at this time of year for millennia – long before Christianity arrived on the scene. That tradition is upheld in Shetland in their Festival of Light which takes place around the time of the New Year. Up Helly Aa – a Norse celebration dating back to the time when Shetland belonged to Norway. People dress as Vikings and parade through the streets to the light of flaming torches and then set fire to a boat, although I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is more to it than that – especially when it comes to that other well-known Viking custom of the imbibing of mead and other such beverages 🙂 The island of Foula, which is just to the south of the main Shetland archipelago, keeps Christmas on the 4th of January as they still use the Julian calendar among the community on the island. At least, that was true when I last heard – as the dynamics of populations change, so do their customs!

But yes – Robert absolutely put his finger on the heart of the Christmas celebrations – life and family. I have been muttering for years about the fact that Himself and I only have had one Christmas on our own together – and that was the one we celebrated in our flat in London just before we got married 35 years ago! I keep saying that I am looking forward to the next one – and in a way, I still am – but at the end of the day our being together as a family, just the four of us, once in the year is really what it is all about. Someone, who in this instance will remain nameless, was saying what a strain Christmas can be when everyone is “trying to be nice to one another” and it gets worse when the weather prevents anyone getting out for a walk and thus “having a break” from each other. I can understand that – I certainly don’t condemn it – but I think it is sad. Our two sons don’t really get on together as a rule – they are chalk and cheese – but once they have settled in and relaxed, we all are able to be friends – a chatty and happy group for those few days before Timothy goes back home to Edinburgh and his girl-friend in time for Hogmanay. Although it can be a pain taking them to and fro across The Diridh to the station two hours drive away in Inverness – which puts a lot on my poor husband who always insists on doing all the driving himself – I now feel that it is worth the effort, as well the extra cooking and baking! My hope now is that this, our own Christmas tradition, goes on for as long as possible and that we will be getting together as a family to celebrate for a lot of years to come..

A view of the island of Foula - from the cockpit of a planeI was rather sad when the decorations came down and it was all over – I didn’t feel quite ready to “get back to normal”! However, I heard something quite interesting on the radio the other day and that was that, long ago, people would keep the Christmas decorations up until Candlemas – 2 February. In those days Christmas was kept with gifts and feasting until Twelfth Night – 6 January – which is now the cut-off date for the decorations to come down. We – in the English speaking world at least – tend to do most of our partying before Christmas itself, and on 2 January (or in Scotland the 3rd as the 2nd is still a Public Holiday), people go back to work and the Festive Season is declared over. The chap on the radio reckoned that the reason why 6 January rather than 2 February became the custom for the decorations to come down was because land-owners and employers wanted their work-force back to work and concentrating on the job! – and thus it became “bad luck” to keep decorations up longer. I don’t know when the practice changed, but I do imagine that it suited the Victorian work ethic to have people back in their jobs as soon as possible – take Mr Scrouge for example! I think though, that sad as I felt when taking down the cards and decorations, 6 January is late enough! Having said that, I am rather glad that we can enjoy the street decorations down in the village for a bit longer as it takes a while for the Highland Council to get around to taking them down – the villagers can’t do the job for reasons of “Health and Safety”!

So now things are “back to normal”! The Dance Club will get going again next Monday, tomorrow I will be playing mah jong again at our normal weekly session at Lyn’s, both my Gaelic groups will be under way again on Thursday and the exercise class will be up and running on Friday morning. Am I ready for all this? Yes, probably. However much good as it is both emotionally and physically for us to feast on the fatted calf (or turkey) for a while, we can’t and shouldn’t go on celebrating for ever…:-)

One of the churches in Lochinver due for closure - or so rumour has it!

[Photo of Foula by calflier001; Up Helly Aa photos by Anne Burgess and Mike Pennington; photo of church by Clarinda]

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