Published in the Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent) 19th November 2014
(Note: this hasn’t really got anything to do with Hamlet!)
When I was a child "playing 'amlet" was something my Dad used to berate me and my brothers for when we were whining. It was only much later in life, and long after I had studied Shakespeare for O and A level that I realised that this phrase, so familiar from childhood, was spelt with an 'H' - playing Hamlet - and referred to the whingeing prince of Denmark.
I came across Hamlet again when I was preparing for our Christmas services. Here are words from the first scene of the play, about Christmas Eve:
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome;
then no planets strike, No fairy takes,
nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
(You can find this on Spotify here: The Young Tradition – Prologue From Hamlet)
This got me thinking. Shakespeare speaks of an extraordinary day which cuts across the calendar and disrupts the familiar order of life.
And here we are, in a season of seasons. We are approaching Christmas. Yet we have also had other commemorations: Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday (particularly poignant this year), also Halloween, and the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, commemorating the holy and the beloved dead. And soon there is the Christian season of Advent, and Jewish Hannukah, and Hindu Diwali, and then New Year and Epiphany. It is why Americans greet one another with the words "Happy Holidays" because there are so many wintertime commemorations.
Yes, these are familiar enough to us, but are we celebrating ideas, or are they special days, "hallowed and gracious times" which cut into our normal routine? They used to be.
I remember, as a child, shivering on dark, frosty November 5th, huddled around a bonfire of burning leaves and fallen branches. There were potatoes wrapped in foil, treacle toffee, sparklers and perhaps a few roast chestnuts. Fireworks too! A rocket, a Catherine Wheel and a few Roman Candles. Then the next day, in school, we'd exaggerate the extent of the incendiary extravaganza our fathers had provided, competing over the size of our rockets and the colours of the firework smoke. Yet nowadays, Bonfire night is not one night but lasts weeks, from mid October to the middle of the month of November itself.
Hallowe'en too was strictly restricted to October 31st, and was a modest matter of apple bobbing (certainly no trick-or-treat, which was unheard of). If we bothered with it at all, it was inconceivable that Hallowe'en could take place - as now - over a period of days - and certainly not after the first of November, All Hallows Day itself.
Now Christmas, I will admit, was anticipated a little in advance, by Carol Singing, crackers and jelly. And by Nativity plays, with crying angels, reluctant Josephs, and animals with uncooperative rear ends. Yet, even so, the time of preparation was a time of excitement. We opened our Advent calendars eagerly each morning to reveal the picture (no chocolate!) with keen anticipation.
We were waiting, hoping, yearning for the big day itself. No such things as gifts in advance, nor presents on demand. Christmas Eve was certainly magical, a hallowed and gracious time. Even if we children waited more for Santa than for the Christ-child, the surprise of the morning was joy indeed.
What has changed is much more complicated than the practice of faith. We seem to have lost the ability to celebrate any days that require preparation, and which disrupt our routine.
We recognise only seasons of celebration, not unique days, which cut into our daily lives; we know how to feast, but not how to fast; we have forgotten how to prepare and anticipate, how to wait and to hope.
The Picture is of Laurence Olivier in the role of Hamlet, (the Film of 1948) in perhaps the most familiar pose from the play.