What can you do with the in-between Christmas and New Year ‘Twixmas’ period – or the traditional extended Twelfth Night period, as per Shakespeare’s play? Dedicated to anyone still waiting for a true Epiphany (and all fellow history nerds).
I’m writing today out of a need to make sense of what has felt like a particularly difficult, amorphous and inchoate in-between period – the week-long wintry gap some clever spark has christened ‘Twixmas’ – the period twixt Christmas and New Year.
Being that I’ve been stuck at home while recovering from a total knee replacement (TKR) op in late November, this year’s Twixmas has been a particularly challenging time. Not being able to go out and socialise – particularly dancing salsa – as a bit of ‘comic relief’ from my daily, occasionally isolated grind as a writer / journalist / editor / artist-in-progress has been tough. Although I am beginning to see improvement in my mobility and flexion angles, it will be at least another 6.5 weeks or more before I can resume ‘normal’ activities, eg full-time work (I can only do two hours max at a computer at the moment) and hopefully dancing – but even so, I may have to put up with on-off pain, swelling and stiffness for a while longer.
I initially embraced this, recalling how good the previous Covid lockdowns had been for me – I’d finally begun writing that novel, and even not dancing brought a whole new group of online friends via the Facebook Co-Beat party, as well as engaging with other online groups such as my regular online portrait sessions, which I believe have helped my art skills grow.
But perhaps after so many strained Covid Christmases, this particular Twixmas has suddenly sucked the life out of me, as even my creative muses seem to have abandoned me. As writer’s block has forced me to take a break from novel-writing, I have shifted to this blog.
Twixmas blues, New Year worries
Apparently, it’s not uncommon for many to feel a kind of post-Christmas blues as the frenzy of present-buying, card-sending and festive feasting/gathering starts to fade, leaving only a tawdry taste of tattered tinsel (or, in our case, loads of prickly pine needles from a dead-too-early Christmas tree seemingly in every nook and cranny of our house), and the relentless grey skies and inclement weather conspire to keep us stuck indoors, trapped in endless television and social media repeats or facing piles of increasingly tasteless leftovers.
Coupled with that, many are beset with fresh anxieties at the thought of making yet another set of new year resolutions, particularly when these are all-too-familiar repeats of last year’s. Looking within to consider how to be a better, fuller you, you can easily get discouraged at your many failings – that gym membership you took out and barely used; those still-not-lost pounds; that noxious habit still ruling your life; that promotion you’re too afraid to ask for; that career or relationship rut that still feels impossible to exit.
Or perhaps all the key relationships in your immediate horizon are either non-existent or fraught with toxic tensions you feel helpless to resolve. And God help the more vulnerable in our society, particularly the old and infirm faced with choices of eating or heating, or struggling to get a hospital bed in the face of NHS strikes!
Meanwhile, the war in the Ukraine rattles on; Trump remains unincarcerated, though perhaps that might end soon; despite endless PM changes, the Tories are still in charge, choking key workers in transport, health and postal sectors while deliberately sabotaging democratic rights to protest; and even Covid is still affecting many, most notably in China.
Climate change continues to get worse: 60+ and rising are dead from a killer deep-freeze in the US. Yet still, all we get is greenwash and vague pledges towards renewables investment while keeping hold of ‘convenient’ fossil fuels, or worse, committing to fresh coal mines or even fracking. Despite scientists continually warning us that we’re already approaching dangerous tipping points for total climate catastrophe, most people would rather stop their ears than forgo that long-awaited long-haul holiday flight or buy in an ‘unaffordable’ electric vehicle. Even the most ardent eco activist could be forgiven for feeling like giving up!
When silence truly is golden
So, how can we break out of this stagnant-seeming period when grey skies dull our spirits and any hopes of a new year or a new us still seem so far away, or even completely unattainable? What can we do to help us snap out of this particular slough of despond?
Perhaps the answer lies in actually doing nothing. Instead of rushing to find a ‘cure’ for whatever ails us, we could try taking time out to give our relentless drive for productivity and progression a real rest. Be a human being rather than a human doing. Allow a period of dormancy, inactivity, hibernation – or even simply lots of sleep – to reframe our energies. Even when it comes to the dreaded writers’ block, sometimes the best approach is simply to take a complete break so you can come back to it afresh, with new eyes.
This is, after all, is the pattern and example of nature; many animals sleep through the entire winter. The soil and its varied life forms lie still, deep in the hush below the surface. The trees have shaken off their leaves and the ground lies fallow; snow falls and blankets the landscape, like a giant white duvet beckoning us to curl up inside and stay in a warm and cosy dreamland, coiled in foetal positions as if recalling a time unborn. All the riotous colour, vibrant, noisy, lively activity of summer is a distant memory; it will be some months before we see the first snowdrops or hear the robin heralding spring.
If nature needs an annual period of dormancy, stillness, silence and seeming deadness in order to revive and flourish once again, surely we as human creatures also need times of inactivity before our souls, minds, bodies and creativity can be reinvigorated?
Anyone who knows me will tell you I can talk for Britain (and likely Ireland and the US as well), and am always busy running around trying to cram 50 things in a day. So for someone like me, having to stay home, rest, be still and quiet – even hushing my usually hyperactive brain and restless tongue – is never an easy or painless task. In fact, it’s bl**** difficult!
Yet I do know from past experience then whenever I’ve spent a long time fighting, striving, working hard, and relentlessly pushing myself to achieve or produce without taking proper rest breaks, I can very easily burn out or ‘lose the plot’ as things get out of balance, both internally and externally. Eventually, either my body breaks down or I enter into some amorphous, inchoate head space, where everything feels out of balance, as if nothing is tangible or I’m losing my grip on everything – even the ability to string words together into coherent sentences and give voice to what I’m feeling. When even a wordy wordsmith like me loses the clarity or ability to speak or write, there is nothing for it but total, complete absence of sound. A complete whiteout of words, maybe even music. Just…. silence.
“The word ‘hovering’ describes exactly what we are doing in this in-between, Twixmas period: waiting for new life to emerge. It offers a valuable time to embrace the silence before words; the darkness before light; the formlessness before shape.”
But in taking time out to embrace this, I see how golden silence and stillness truly are. My soul actually cries out for times where all sound is suspended in a deep, luscious, duvet-warm hush. For how can we understand music without the breaks or pauses hidden inside the flow of sounds? And how can we understand poetry without the breaks that frame it? Or art, without the blank spaces that surround the images? Indeed, how does form even exist without an adjacent formlessness?
“In the beginning… the Earth was without form and empty, and darkness was over the face of the face of the deep” the book of Genesis tells us. Yet in the midst of this formless, empty space, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Suddenly God says, “let there be light”, and immediately within that golden light, which stood out so brilliantly against the inchoate, amorphous, endless night, all of creation came into being. But first there was an empty space before new life could emerge. Yet before this, what’s happening is hovering (meaning “staying in the same position in the air” or “remaining in or near one place”).
The word ‘hovering’ describes exactly what we are doing in this in-between, Twixmas period: waiting for new life to emerge. It offers a valuable time to embrace the silence before words; the darkness before light; the formlessness before shape.
Roll on Epiphany (or Twelfth Night)!
Some people have commented that this ‘hovering’ between Christmas and the new year seems particularly prolonged this year because both Christmas and New Year’s Day have fallen on a Sunday, meaning (at least in the UK) that the festive period is extended another few days as bank holidays.
While perhaps most will welcome the extra time off, for others it may feel a bit like prolonging the agony. Yet historically – or at least since the Council of Tours decided to make it so in 567 AD – this in-between period officially ended with the feast of the Epiphany, usually celebrated on 6 January (or 5 January, in reference to Twelfth Night [aka Epiphany Eve, similar to our own calendar-based New Year’s Eve]).
Most of us will be familiar with the idea of the traditional Twelfth Night feast and celebrations (as shown in the image below, replete with fools or jesters, lovers and people wearing crowns) through the title of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, or the classic Christmas carol “The 12 days of Christmas”), traditionally, the 12 days between Jesus’ birth (day 1) and the appearance of the Magi (day 12).*
The festival of Epiphany first originated in the Eastern or Orthodox church, which split from Rome during the Great Schism of 1054, however even before that, and as early as 354 AD, Christ’s birth began to be celebrated on 25 December, with the Roman church also celebrating Epiphany on 6 January.
Epiphany was created in honour of the Magi (the three wise men – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazzar), who came from the East bearing gifts for the infant Jesus, predominantly because the presence of non-Jewish foreigners at Jesus’ crib signifed that the Jewish Messiah also came for the Gentiles. The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is also the origin of Christmas gift-giving. The gold was particularly in honour of Christ’s – the everlasting king’s – kingship; frankincense, which was traditionally burned in the Jewish temple as an offering to God, represented Jesus’s deity, an affirmation that he is both God and man; while myrrh – traditionally used to embalm bodies – foreshadowed Jesus’s death.
The tradition of gift-giving later became associated with the 4th century Saint Nikolaos, bishop of Myra (Asia Minor), who was famed for his fondness for giving gifts. In the German version of this story, St Nikolaos would go out on his rounds of gift-giving to children on the eve of Epiphany (5 January), carrying a book with records of their behaviour. He was usually accompanied by ‘Knecht’ (or servant) Ruprecht, a sinister figure who carried a big sack on his back in which he would put all the naughty children.
Eventually, this figure (Knecht Rupert) became associated with the Christ child and was rolled into the idea of St Nikolas to create a new figure, the Weihnachtsmann, or Father Christmas – aka Santa Claus – with the time frame moving to Christmas Eve.
So now you know where all that Santa stuff came from, and why we now exchange gifts at Christmas rather than Epiphany! (I hope this encourages anyone whose Christmas parcels got lost or delayed in the post due to the postal strikes – or perhaps is still delivering them in person – you’re still effectively in the Christmastide period!)
New Year resolutions – from then to now
So, how did we move from the traditional reflective soul-searching marked in most Christian liturgical calendars as Advent – eg the period from 27 November to Christmas Eve (24 December), a time of fasting ending with a celebratory feast – to this current Twixmas tradition of soul-searching and reflection before making a list of New Year resolutions?
Apparently, the idea of new year resolutions predates the Christian church, as the ancient Babylonians were the first to do this some 4,000 years ago. For them, the new year began in mid-March when the crops were planted (for Jews it doesn’t happen until mid-September; Chinese New Year 2023 starts on 22 January; and no doubt other cultures acknowledge different dates). The Babylonians had a 12-day celebration (Akitu) to mark the occasion, where they promised the gods they would pay off their debts and return any objects they’d borrowed, believing the gods would favour them if they kept their promises.
We actually have Julius Caesar, circa 46 BC, to thank for establishing the first of January as the official beginning of the new year. The month of January is so named in honour of the two-faced god Janus, who symbolically looked backwards to the old year and forward to the new. Like the Babylonians before them, the Romans believed if they sacrificed to Janus and kept their promises of good conduct in the new year, they would be blessed with good fortune.
As with other pagan traditions, early Christians later appropriated this, using the beginning of the new year to reflect on the mistakes of the previous year and resolve to do better in the new year. John Wesley set up a new tradition of a New Year’s Eve ‘Watch Night’ in 1740, and now many denominations use New Year’s Eve as a time to pray and make resolutions for the new year.
But with an increasingly secularised society, most of these traditions of making promises to God or gods – Christian or pagan – have been replaced by a time of reflection and making resolutions to ourselves. This is now often a series of vows we make to be better, do better, than we did in the previous year, based on our personal reflection and evaluations of the year just gone.
Remarkably, even if only 8% of new year resolutions are actually kept, we still persist with this ritual – which goes to show that, whether our approach is spiritual or secular, some part of our soul recognises a need to use some time out for reflection as a springboard for personal growth and development, which has only become increasingly associated with the new year ever since the early 19th century (or some would argue even the 17th century).
So how will you mark the new year?
Perhaps the best approach to this reflective Advent/new year/Twelfth Night/Epiphany period is to ask ourselves questions: What are my core values? How well did what I actually did or achieved in the previous year align with my values? Is there anything I could or should change so that my daily life actually matches the things I believe in or hold most dear?
Perhaps, as our London Writers’ Salon end-of-year workshop suggested, we could start by making a list of all the things we are grateful for from the previous year. We can then make another list of what we’d like or know we need to leave behind, and perhaps identify five key words to characterise what we desire to be or do in the new year. (You can also see here for a downloadable PDF of further tools and tips for new year reflections, as suggested by a fellow LWS writer).
As for me, having slogged through/still slogging through a challenging Twixmas and choosing to accept this period of rest and quietude, I am looking forward to a Twelfth Night ‘epiphany’ – eg “a moment of sudden insight or understanding” – that will help me break my current writer’s block and suddenly see how I can tie up a few confusing plot issues so as to (hopefully) finally finish Part II, which was my original goal for the end of the year. I’m grateful that not only are there a range of alternative ends and starts of new years to choose from, but that as of the end of 2022, I’ve so far written 82,860 words of Part II.
I give thanks to God and to all those who have supported me in both my writing and knee op recovery period – and I look forward not only to completing Part II, but starting the final Part III of the first draft of my historical fiction novel, as well as finally (hopefully!) being able to dance again! I am personally ending this year with God’s promise that “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40: 31). Thank you, Lord, for being the Yes and Amen to that!
Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy new year full of good things – whenever and however you choose to celebrate it.
*Note: There is some discrepancy regarding the actual dates, based on whether you count the day of Christ’s birth as celebrated on 25 December, as day one of the 12 days of Christmas – sometimes called ‘Christmastide’, as the English christened it – or the day after, eg the 26th; this accounts for occasionally fuzzy overlap between the 5th and 6th of January.
To confuse or prolong this period even further, yet another Christian tradition sees Candlemas, or the ‘Feast of the Presentation of Christ’ in the temple (according to Jewish tradition, the circumcision and purification ceremony would have been done 33 days after Jesus’ birth), as the final consummation of the entire Christmas cycle. Candlemas is typically celebrated with many lit candles to signify Jesus as the Light of the World. Candlemas is traditionally held on the 2nd of February, marking a total 40 days around the birth of Jesus.