Floods in the north of England, people swept from their homes, possessions wrecked and beloved family mementos destroyed in the torrents of muddy water…this has been a strange winter and it’s not over yet.
A young American writer asked me recently about Christmas customs, and any special traditions in Britain. After reflection, I realised that I could not in honesty produce evidence of any really significant traditions that are currently thriving: of course lots and lots of families and churches and groups have their own special traditions, but the idea that Olde Englande somehow revives at Christmastide is just not accurate. Indeed, many traditions that flourished a few years ago are now fading. It is, for example, now quite rare to have carol-singers going from door to door (I saw and heard none this year). When I last gathered a group of friends to do this we were met with pleased surprise by some families when we sang outside their home, but others – especially people from Asia – were just baffled, and many older people seemed nervous about opening the door to greet us. A newer idea is singing at railway stations – I do this every year with a group at a major London station and it is always a wonderful experience, with lots of goodwill (and a glorious sound, as the station has great accoustics!).
People eat roast turkey at Christmas – but it is no longer a special treat, as, together with every other sort of meat, it is sold year-round in all the supermarkets and turkey-burgers, “turkey twizzlers” etc are are staple in many homes. We might watch the Queen on television – but instead of doing this all together at a set time, the whole country listening to the National Anthem and to her message, we just have it whenever we want on our computers or mobile phones. On the other hand, of course there are carol services, and Nativity plays in schools and churches. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church bells ring out to call people to worship – and most churches still do gather good crowds together, at Midnight Masses and at morning ones.
But…the main message that people gt at Christmas 2015 in Britain was spend-spend-spend, with more and more lavish recipes being printed for magnificent meals, and more and more expensive must-have gifts advertised everywhere. And now it’s January, and in most places the January Sales began on Boxing Day (Dec 26th). Television advertisments on Christmas Day were telling us we must buy, buy buy: computers, mobile phones, electronic gadgets, furniture, clothes, toys, cars…buy, buy, buy!!.
So now 2016 begins. I am writing this just after a splendid Epiphany Party, held for members of the editorial team of The Portal, the on-line magazine of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The Ordinariate (Anglicans coming into full Communion with the Catholic Church, bringing their own liturgy and customs) is five years old this year. The Ordinariate Church of the Most Precious Blood at London Bridge will be celebrating with a special Mass on Saturday Jan 16th, at which the choir of the John Fisher School, Purley, will be singing: a Catholic school singing Anglican chant at a service using Cranmerian-style English – that’s a bit of history being made.
Lent and Easter come early this year. Shrove Tuesday is on February 9th – now that’s a day when we do keep up old traditions, and many people enjoy pancakes. I am not sure that so many then start fasting the next day, Ash Wednesday…but large numbers do attend church, and many Catholic churches in London are packed to discomfort, with people even standing outside. People who would never normally go to a weekday Mass come along to receive ashes on their foreheads and hear the message “Remember, man, that thou art dust…” and to hear the message of mercy and forgiveness.
So traditions are still alive, and the Church, in this Year of Mercy, still carries the great message that has sustained us for generations, here in a rain-soaked Britain.