Thought for the Day - Professor Linda Woodhead - 26/12/2012
Good morning. Happy Boxing Day.
When I was a child I hated Boxing Day. I’d wake up and think: “Oh no! No more presents until Easter.” Now that I’m older I’m more likely to wake up and think: “Thank goodness that’s over for another year: back to normal.” But really you need both things: ordinary time and extra-ordinary time -- because neither works properly without the other.
In the Christian calendar ‘ordinary time’ is a technical term for that part of the year which isn’t focused around the major festivals like Christmas. Its colour is green, in contrast to the purples, reds and other hues of ritual time. Even for those who don’t celebrate the birth of Christ, Christmas is a ritual event which focuses attention on love, forgiveness, hospitality and generosity. In practice, as the Mass Observation extracts being read on this programme show, these deeper sentiments often jostle with worries about burnt potatoes, pet rabbits, and putting on weight. That’s just fine. We need this mix of the mundane and the magical, because ritual only has power when it gathers up the everyday and wrings out its true meaning.
I saw a good example the other day in a documentary about the Orthodox Jewish community in Manchester. The camera followed a rabbi as he visited an old man whose sister had just died. “How are you?” asks the rabbi. “Oh I’m fine. I’m fine. I hadn’t seen her for thirty years, you know. Ever since she went to live in New York. We lost touch really.” The rabbi recites the prayers for the dead in Hebrew. At the end he asks the bereaved man to stand, and performs the traditional ritual rending of garments, literally tearing the man’s shirt. And immediately, the old man’s indifference is torn too, and he breaks into floods of tears for his sister. Tears he didn’t know he had, tears he could not have shed without the ritual. It’s a focusing lens for what really matters.
Not that rituals always work. They go wrong when they become too empty or too full. In both cases they lose their connection with everyday life. Empty ritual is when we end up just going through the motions: the gift-giving, carol singing, or whatever doesn’t connect with how we really feel. Overblown ritual is the opposite: the ritual becomes so important it becomes an escape from the life that surrounds it. But at their best, rituals gather up the scattered meanings of our lives and return them to us with fresh clarity and purpose.
Which is why we need our Boxing Days and our Christmases.
Available since: Wed 2 Jan 2013
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