I realised early in the New Year that I was coming alive again, and with a bit of a roar.
My first semi-lucid dream of 2022 involved a dark pupal form pulsating blackly, as if about to burst open or to split painfully. Nothing to do with too much Christmas turkey! I have a tendency to have too many ideas, to keep too many balls in the air, and to juggle too many half-formed plans.
It is only this year that I have realised that Christmas is not just a few days celebrating the birth of baby Jesus, but a whole month of descent and ascent, moving from the shadow of winter into pitch darkness and back into the ghostly light of New Year.
Twelfth Night marks the end of this cycle. It takes place on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and heralds the coming of the Epiphany. Traditionally it has been a time of disorder, when fools become kings, and the traditional hierarchies are turned over. It’s bad luck to leave Christmas decorations hanging after that date. My calendar tells me that this year it fell on 5th January, although some people count it as the day after.
Unusually this year, I was involved in taking down the decorations and putting the tree out in garden. For the last couple of years, in the catatonic stasis of Covid, I have been seeking a new identity, a new meaning. It’s not just about the day job. I have worked in journalism, in energy, as an economist, and writing travel and business guidebooks. In the evenings, I have doubled as a poet, a potter, an occasional artist (definitely Fauvism!) and hopefully a responsible parent.
But over the last couple of years it has felt increasingly like I am seeing these different roles through the glass of a museum cabinet.
As I went into the dark part of this year, I realised the beautiful symmetry of the month around the Winter Solstice (21st December 2021). St Nicholas’ Day is a fortnight before the Solstice, and Twelfth Night is a fortnight after, and I seem to remember from some pagan myth that the sun gets buried for three days, so Christmas Eve is like the end of a mourning period when the sun is in hiding below the horizon.
St Nicholas’ Day on 6th December coincided with my flu jab, little more than a fortnight after my Pfizer booster shot. I felt growing feelings of darkness. Not exactly a depression, but certainly a Seasonal Affective feeling. Some of my negative emotions are Brexit-related. Advent is a magical time, and on St Nicholas’ Day during my childhood everyone in the village would walk with lanterns to the village church in the snowy cold.
Before Christmas, the darkness gets deeper and the year closes in, and thoughts and feelings turn inward. Creativity becomes a dark larval form, hot and angry, aching to break out, or quiet and cold and resentful, like a black lake. It’s like being in a particularly odd railway station waiting room, and the train seems like it will never arrive. That enervated early morning feeling of being somewhere real and unreal at the same time.
For the solstice this winter, we went down to the sea at Seaford, outside the rickety yacht club. We watched the sun sink slowly into rags of deep grey clouds. I felt revitalised by the sight and sound of the sea, but for some reason close to tears.
But then Christmas intervened. Of course, it has been lurking for weeks. Christmas carols that have been playing in High Street shops since late October become relentlessly more strident. TV adverts for banks and supermarkets become omnipresent, like playground bullies. The Festive Season rises to new heights of Trumpian buffoonery, joy becomes pervasive, like a monsoon. And then you too are transformed: you become like one of those bustling waiters at a Michelin starred restaurant, precise, fixated, humorous: buying last minute stocking fillers, wrapping gifts with string, dashing off Greeting Cards, pre-emptive or retaliatory, playing Santa to the kids, sous-chef to the Christmas turkey, pouring out Christmas wine like a robot.
After Christmas, a good deal of sleep, but between Christmas and New Year is like an eyelid slowly opening. Slowly, very slowly. That’s why I dislike this period so much. The need for walks on Boxing Day, the need to go into town and see what’s On Sale, the drinks with neighbours and friends, and then the clamour of New Year. When my whole body just wants to be quiet and solitary, and my eyelids tightly shut.
On New Year’s Eve, we ate 12 grapes with friends at midnight, a Spanish custom. When I woke up on New Year’s Day, I was surprised that the evening’s drinking had not resulted in a punitive hangover. I had the usual sharp memory that my mother had died exactly four years earlier, and then the usual brunch with our neighbours, Bucks Fizz, scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, real or Vegan, fried mushrooms and plenty of strong coffee. I talked with one of their boys, an inspiring young man who has significant health issues but has travelled half-way round South America, much of this during Covid.
The next day, we went down to the sea, as we did on the Solstice. I don’t know what had changed but it felt completely different. The tide was out, the heavy weather had lifted, and we looked for fossils and stones on the beach at Hope Gap. It felt like I had broken out of a suitcase. Rather than cold and stormy, the sea stretched out like a wish, glistening in the low sunlight.
This year, I have resolved not to make New Year resolutions. Some of my plans hatched in the Covid lockdown are inching painfully towards activation, others rock around pointlessly like forgotten sea-shells. But I want to move beyond these plans, to find a meaning that goes deeper than the labels on the museum cabinet.
As I took the decorations down on Twelfth Night, I experienced a surge of pure energy and hope, rather than the sadness I’d expected to feel. A cycle had been completed,. I felt that 2022 stretched out like one of those iconic roads in the USA, and I was excited to leave 2021 behind.