It is nearing the end of the holiday period at Oxford. Next week will be noughth week (under no circumstances to be referred to as zeroeth week) and then we will begin Hillary Term. People are dribbling back in.
New Year’s resolutions will soon be wrecked by the return of Hasan’s.
A retrospective on the holyday period is in order. English New Year stretches from the mid-December holiday called “Christmas” to the inventively named “New Years Day” on the 1st of January. This is the middle of winter, and people seem to think that this is the only rational way for things to be. Because of the timing, none of the standard New Zealand New Year activities can take place; no visits to the beach, no barbeques, no venturing out of doors.
Not an English Christmas
Interested in experiencing this strange cultural phenomenon (and unable to afford the plane flight home) I elected to spend the New Year period at Cambridge with my granny, my uncle, my cousin, and his girlfriend. Many of the activities turn out to be the same: feasts are eaten, merriment is had, imbibation occurs, and family members inadvertantly exchange the various air-borne diseases which they’ve acquired throughout the year.
There are other customs. For instance, the assembly of the faux Christmas tree – the christianised form of the dark pagan rituals of the 1950’s, the watching of the Christmas carol service on BBC2, the forgetting to watch the Queen’s Christmas message, the huddling around the
fire heater with flames on it with all the windows and doors sealed shut, and the hoping for a white Christmas or a warm Christmas (the weather gods, striving to satisfy both desires simultaneously, will inevitably provide a wet Christmas).
As it turned out, though, on Christmas day, the sun shone brilliantly and the temperature reached well into the double digits. In New Zealand it rained (somewhere. probably). My cousin and his girlfriend are fantastic cooks, so we had several enormous traditional English holiday feasts (with Japano-Lithuanian twists). Christmas Eve saw noodles with deep-fried prawns and Lithuanian honey-mead. Christmas dinner was a whole turkey and a gargantuan trifle. Boxing Day included salmon, roast pork, and turkey. Lunch the next day was turkey sandwiches. The day after that: turkey curry… It turns out that a turkey is pretty big. So it was a week with plenty of food.
Then everyone got sick from the aforementioned air-borne diseases, except for Granny, who is ninety-one, grew up in rural Norfolk, and is made of sterner stuff. She tells stories about how much better it was before running water, bathing in rain water and drinking water from the neighbour’s well… although sometimes there were mosquito eggs in the rain butts and when the bucket came off in the well it took hours to recover it. Her father fought on horseback at Armageddon and was once tied to a gun wheel after mistaking an officer for a member of the salvation army and used to feed his household by poaching from the inclosures. She read every book in the village and still quotes a vast range of verse and prose from memory, but wasn’t allowed to go to school on the day of the final exams and had to leave school at fourteen to work as a chambermaid. During the war she worked at Bletchley Park during the war, listening in on coded German signals and after the war she studied at Oxford. Because she’s always been in England and I’ve always been in New Zealand, I’ve never got to spend much time with her, so this was the best way to spend a fortnight.
There’s a cliche, which I’ve heard from literally multiple people here, that Christmas only makes sense in the winter, because it is meant to be about coming together to light up the darkest days of the year and I think there’s truth to that.
But Christmas wrapped up, my cousin had to rush off to work in London, my uncle had to get back to Japan, Granny had to go back to the home, and I had to be off back to Oxford. On to the next year!