There are few instances when you can point to mainstream religions and say that they do something with absolute perfection. Off the top of my head I’d say that nobody beats them in terms of stained-glass windows, weather vanes, and organised tombola. They also are eminently well prepared when it comes to calendars and the way they organise their religious festivals. They can drop a thumb on any date in their diaries and declare with absolute authority that it’s St Buttermint’s Day, marking the start of the Festival of Perpetual Scratching, which ends on the 11th June with the Hangover of St. Bernard the Intemperate. It really is that clever.
Yet what’s really notable is how they don’t simply mark the important days as much as they set a schedule around each celebration. They don’t just know when something begins and ends but, more importantly, also when it starts to begin and when it ceases to end.
A quick Google for the Church of England’s calendar for 2016 tells me that Easter Sunday will this year fall on 27th March. It is preceded by the fasting of Lent, marked by Ash Wednesday, which is on 10th February. We also know that the week before Easter Sunday is called ‘Easter Week’ and Easter itself lasts until Pentecost, which we also call Whit Sunday on 15th May.
I expect you don’t find that too interesting but my point is that religious calendars don’t deal in absolutes. They make a virtue of anticipation and delay, both of which are as important as the actual days of celebration, not least because they give the faithful an idea of when they should start toasting their hot cross buns. For the rest of us thinking to buy Easter eggs, we need start shopping around 21st March which is a really important date for your diaries. It’s the day that proves that Easter doesn’t begin on the 1st January, a fact which would be obvious if it weren’t for all the shops that choose that day to start stocking chocolate rabbits.
I pick on chocolate rabbits because I’m particularly averse to their cute leporidic terror but I could choose any one of the old festivals we mark with overpriced blobs of novelty vegetable fat. The patterns of our lives are increasingly dictated by automated inventory systems that have no soul. They know no humanity too as they switch from one seasonal stock to the next. It leaves us facing a year-long fight with common sense that keeps telling us that Yoko Ono screeching ‘Merry Christmas’ does not belong in the middle of August, even if the shops have just replaced their remaining stock of paddling pools with plastic Perry Comos on sleds.
You can go through the entire year and recognise the same miserable pattern. Christmas cards make way for Valentines Cards, which are immediately replaced by Mother’s Day cards followed by Father’s Day cards. Gardening supplies are abundant during the spring months but try to find a pair of gloves when you’re brushing a fall of leaves in August and you discover the gardening section in your local supermarket has been replaced by pumpkin lanterns and severed limbs. The moment Halloween is done, the shops start flogging cheap Chinese fireworks the size of North Korean nukes. Then it’s Christmas and no sooner do you unplug your ears from a month of endless torture by Slade than the whole marketing cycle begins again.
You needn’t be a whiskery old Trot to find the tick-tock of marketing merciless. Nor do you have to be particularly religious to think it wrong. Myself, I am a clean-shaven atheist who enjoys high-tech consumer goods yet my atheism doesn’t preclude an appreciation of human myths, religions and stories. Our need to make certain days special seems integral to our psychology, which remains one of the great puzzles of science.
Stories prove how much we are analogue creatures to whom the pacing of life is important to our mental health. Our myths do not read: ‘And so Jason set out to hunt for the Golden Fleece and, lo, there it was!’ Narrative is about building and releasing tension, with long gradual transitions as we move from one place to the next. Romantic novels don’t introduce the heroine to the hero in one sentence and have them consummate their lust in the next (though I’m told Fifty Shades of Grey is the one exception). Tolkien did not pen the memorable opening: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit who found a magic ring which his nephew lost down a volcano when he had his finger bitten off’.
All stories, myths and religions have key moments but also their equally important lulls when nothing much seems to happen. So too are there natural lulls in our lives and our calendars. They are lulls that are increasingly ignored by the mechanised time of computerised systems that switch from one mode of festive hyperbole to the next. Even if our culture is becoming increasingly secular, there’s surely no reason why we cannot mark the proper divisions between our traditional holidays. We all need time away from the marketing and the message. Holidays are part of the deep patterns of our lives but they are only significant it we’re also allowed some time to stop fretting over elf slippers, Valentine knickers, or chocolate rabbits in the middle of January.