The new year is a time for renewal, for starting again: for a kind of spring clean for the mind. I’ve long liked the sense of newness that it offers, but then I’ve always seen it as positive.
Even standing outside, early this afternoon, on a cloudy day where the blue could only hint at breaking through, I could feel the pull – almost physically – of the future; of the coming year; the returning sun: the cycle of life. Even now, only a few days on from the winter solstice, the days are getting longer.
All the snow before Christmas set me thinking. I love it; feel drawn toward it. In the very corner of my mind’s eye are snow-covered plains and forests stretching endlessly; a moon above and only the sounds of the occasional animal or bird and the crunch of snow underfoot. It’s something elemental and ancient. New year is the same.
My father managed to make it something else – a sort of groveling and miserable thing. Not on New Year’s Eve itself, when he’d stick to less religious tradition and conspire to have a piece of coal to bring into the house at midnight.
But later, on the first Sunday of the new year, when he’d take the annual covenant service. It was, as I recall, a Methodist’s formal opportunity to re-commit themselves to God.
I have no concrete memories of the service itself, just an abiding sense of it being miserable and depressing – although I doubt that was the prime intention. Mind, it was probably a bit like the Christmas that we’d just left behind: my father’s favourite carol is In the Bleak Midwinter – which must have one of the highest gloom quotients of any Christmas hymn. I was at my happiest when descanting away to Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald.
Way back when, the midwinter feast would mark the last of the decent grub that had been stored: then would come the hardest times, before spring started bringing forth fresh foods.
A month or so after that midwinter fattening and celebration is the perfect time, when you think about it like this, for a formal period of fasting. For Lent, indeed. You didn’t really have a lot of choice, so clerics didn’t have to invent it, but merely turn it to a new use, to suggest that you do what you had no choice about for The Big G. Which would make you feel a lot better. If only in the next life.
People longed for meat, for cream, for butter. Instead, they grew bored of the fish that was the religiously-sanctioned staple and one of the few things available.
It’s funny really, that in our generally rather secular days, Lent hasn’t just stuck around as a time for religious fasting, but as a period when even those who are not particularly religious get to boast about what they’re giving up. And boast they do – which is why we all get to hear about what they’ve foresworn.
Then again, if they didn’t tell us, who would know? Those they tell are, in effect, the new gods that are looked to for approval of a self-denial that is chosen, not forced by the reality of a lack of modern food preservation techniques.
But if people boast because they need someone to see their self-denial and they don’t believe in a divine entity to do so, then it also begs the question of why they’re bothering with the giving-up malarkey in the first place.
Before we get to Lent, we have another ‘giving-up’ period with the start of the new year and the resolutions that go with it. And since that increasingly seems to mean: ‘I’m Giving Up X, Y or Z’ (or all three) it effectively extends Lent to something close to the first quarter of the year.
This year, just as your resolutions are wearing off, you get another little splurge on 8 March – the chance to use up your left-over eggs and flour for pancakes – and then off you go on Lent. As a slight aside, have you noticed that Brits gets diddled on this one? Look at what other people get to do before Lent while we get to toss pancakes.
But back to new year resolutions. Most of all, this is the time of year when you start The Diet. If you pigged out during the festivities in the olden days, then the unavoidable period of limited food to follow would get rid of those excess pounds. But now we have to artificially create the dietary impact of those old shortages.
Striving for the body beautiful is a perfect way to do this. Add in ideas where the only indicator of health is body shape and you have a potent mix. And indeed, it’s even better, since it gets to be used again, later in the year when you’re encouraged to get your body ready for the beach.
Let’s take things a bit further. If we have, as Nietzsche claimed, killed God, then does there have to be something in his place? Or even if there doesn’t have to be, has a vacuum been created that is being filled by other things?
And do those “other things” succeed most when they involve control, discipline, guilt, societal judgement and the promise of a distant reward, in much the same way that religion involves such things?
Do we now worship a certain body type in a pseudo religious manner, forcing ourselves through un-natural and not particularly pleasant behaviours in a quasi-religious quest for that always-just-out-of-reach ideal?
Because, no matter what anyone tells you, a diet made up, for instance, of two bowls of cereal a day or constant grapefruits is not actually a healthy one and all it’ll do is leave you with pangs of hunger and constant thoughts of the food that you cannot eat. Suffering is good for the soul, of course.
Mind, if we’re going down this road, then it could also be argued that the level of consumerism that we’ve reached (and which we need to maintain or increase for the sake of the economy) demands constant spending.
If we splurged loads on Christmas eating and drinking, then we can spend loads more in the new year on diet products (always more expensive than proper food anyway) and fitness products and services that will help us shed the weight that we put on with the economy-sanctioned spending binge at the end of the previous year.
If you think that all this is a bit far-fetched, just remember that during 2010, one of the senior officials of the Bank of England pleaded with us all to spend more for the sake of the economy – even if that meant dipping into our savings, which were worth less and less anyway because of the low interest rates that are intended to encourage us all to spend more ...
So while the tyranny of the perfect body might not have actually been created by the Establishment, it can be of service to some surprising things. At present, the economy.
Now please don’t get the idea that I’m saying that this is all An Absolutely Bad Thing per se. I make an effort to look after my skin decently, for instance – never more so than now, as I watch carefully on the horizon for that nearing half century. And in between checking the mirror as I apply a good moisturiser, I Google to see how old are assorted women on TV, as I compare their necks to mine.
It’s the sense of extremes that I find interesting: on the one hand, the cult of a certain very specific type of physical ideal. On the other, the puritanism that we’ve mentioned previously, that condemns, for instance, the enjoyment of food.
These two aren’t as different as they might appear – or as their respective adherents might wish to think. Both share, amongst other things, a near-religious certainty and a guilt in pleasure, together with a belief in something better that is just out of reach but surely attainable by certain behaviours, which just happen to involve pain and/or self-denial. No pain, no gain, eh?
And for both groups, food plays a central role in all those factors.
You might – or might not – be relieved to hear that I don’t do resolutions. And I’m not going on a diet now or planning to give anything up for Lent.
This place ain’t called the Voluptuous Manifesto for nothing.