It’s January 3 and something eerily strange is happening to Britain – everyone is sober. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people give up the booze for the month, and I have to confess to being a regular participant of Dry January; confess because some see it as an almost un-Christian reversal of tradition. After all, Christmas does not end until the 6th and it is Advent that should be a time of restraint.
Although it makes more sense to fast first and feast later, Dry January seems to have grown out of another recent tradition, the Christmas Office Party season, as Advent has become increasingly debauched and Late Roman.
But Dry January isn’t just about giving the liver a rest (most doctors say it makes no difference, if you’re going to go straight back to drink on February 1) nor saving the finances after the Christmas overspend. I think it’s really part of a desire for a calendar of feasts and fasts, the sort of thing still provided by the Church even in nominally Catholic countries but absent in those that had gone through the Reformation. As atheists such as Alain de Botton have argued, there are huge psychological benefits to be had.
Britain has already re-branded some religious events, to a certain extent. Guy Fawkes Day is a reinvention of the traditional light festivals of autumn; having abandoned All Saints Day, Britain has now imported the American Halloween, itself a bastardized version of the Irish pagan festival of Samhein; Halloween is taken much more seriously in Ireland, where it has genuine roots, than in England, where it feels as unnatural as cheerleaders and men in baseball caps.
Remembrance Day is also in effect the day of the dead; this is a necessary release, and helps people deal with grief, but England is still lacking something. Visiting Poland a few years ago I was moved to see all the people taking flowers to the graves of their family members on November 1. This is a country that in living memory had witnessed appalling mass murder and yet it seemed to be one that dealt with it, and even the Four Horseman of the New Atheist movement would be hard pressed to deny that Catholicism plays a part.
Many other feasts have been lost to the wider public. St Katherine’s Day, on November 25, was once a huge event in England, as it was across Europe, a time to celebrate women and their achievements. Today it is only really celebrated in Estonia, for some reason.
Now, of course, such feasts have been replaced by international awareness days, of which there are too many to name, including bizarre things such as International Respect for Chickens Day or International Left Hander’s Day, as well the ones that are marked with solemnity and reverence, such as Aids Awareness Day.
Many, though, seem to have no coherent purpose except to “raise awareness”, one of the most irritating phrases of the age. Saint’s day, in contrast, have a rhythm and order that secularised equivalents simply lack, and are also a time of easing restrictions, a necessary safety valve for any group of people. The most obvious example was the Feast of Fools, a day in which the social norms was reverse and in which someone low in the pecking order would become the Lord of Misrule. The Feast of Fools was traditionally celebrated on January 1, the feast of the Lord’s Circumcision, and drew heavily on the Roman Saturnalia; this tradition died out in the 16th century.
Another such example was St John’s Eve, in June 23, when traditional restraints on sexual behaviour were eased somewhat, and maidens were permitted to dance and even perhaps take things further. This was also marked with bonfires and such Midsummer Festivals are still marked in some countries.
Now sexual restraints are lifted 365 days a year, so there seems little point in such an event; likewise with Christmas and eating. There is nothing wrong with Christmas indulgence in itself, especially as it is a feast for children; but the feast as a break from normal life has been broken.
That is why people feel the need to invent the tradition of January sobriety, to give structure and rhythm to the year. Dry January it also tests people’s strength of will, which is probably why Lent appears to be increasingly popular even with non-religious people; the modern middle class love self-denial and willpower. That’s partly why I do it, although this year will compromise by starting the fast on the Feast of the Epiphany and starting again on February 1.
That just happens to be St Brigit’s Day, and in Ireland in the old days the austerity of this miserable time of year could be broken by the feast of Brigit of Kildare, which was also the Gaelic Imbolc, the festival of the Spring. Maybe the Church should do more to promote this feast?