When I first knew him my Scottish husband celebrated Hogmanay far more than he celebrated Christmas. It was just one of the many many differences between us. If he was wished Happy New Year even on New Years Eve he would reply, “Aye, when it comes.” His firm belief was that the greeting was appropriate only at mid-night and then for a few days afterwards, and he just couldn’t see that his reply seemed a bit parsimonious, sort of rationing the good wishes. He was a Glaswegian and one Christmas, in Derbyshire, he introduced me to the practice of first-footing, or the version of it that he had grown up with (customs change slightly in different areas); at midnight the first person to enter the house should be a man, dark-haired (not essential – he was blond) and carrying a bottle of whisky, with a coin in his pocket, a twist of salt, a piece of shortbread and a lump of coal. These things are supposed to bring financial and physical health, warmth, good food and good cheer for the coming year (dark-haired because that signified a Celt rather than a Viking). At a minute to midnight some one would leave the house and at the stroke of midnight return carrying all these goodies. The other hogmanay first foot tradition is to then go out and call on neighbours and friends, to share a drink with each one before going on to the next house with your bottle of cheer. Well, we were broke, but knowing how important it was to him, I had bought a bottle of whisky and produced it just before midnight, to his delight. We shared a tot (I hate the stuff) and then George said “Right, away we go, hen.” I wasn’t sure that anyone in Derby would understand this next bit of Hogmanay tradition but George was adamant “everyone knows about first-footing” so off we went to share the cheer with our neighbours.
Our immediate neighbour was Bill, a sweet widower, and when we knocked on his door he and his huge adult sons crowded to the doorway, full of laughter and beer, kisses and huge hugs. “Happy New Year!” said George, holding out the bottle. “Happy New Year” said Bill, and he took the bottle, gave George another big drunken kiss and then shut the door in our faces. The whisky was gone. We looked at each other, stunned. His lovely whisky! Gorn.
We returned home. Had a cup of tea. The next day Bill called over the fence “That was very generous of youse, George. Thanks a lot, mate. Happy New Year.” and my poor bloke smiled weakly and just about managed an unconvincing “Yes, good…. Happy New Year, Bill.”
I liked George’s toast at New Year “May the best of your old year, be the worst of the new.” but I’m not a fan of the celebrations. Tonight my bubble friends will come with an Indian meal, and they’ll be going early because they have dogs who hate fireworks so they want to be with them. I don’t want to see the New Year in, I’d much rather be tucked up in bed, but like my bubble pals, I have dogs who will be distressed, so I’ll stay up, have the music on loud-loud, hoping to drown out the racket as the sky explodes with colour and lightning bolts and all manner of whizz-bangs.
Warning: Tomorrow I will be hung over, not from booze but from a sleepless night and dog worries. Probably wise not to wish me Happy New Year in the morning, as a smack in the mouth often offends.
Hey – I was given a book for Christmas and it’s good stuff. Want to hear my favourite bit so far? No? Well, stop reading then, because here it comes:
‘..the image of Christ is the fulfilment of the deepest hungers of the human heart for wholeness. The greatest thirst of our being is for fulfilment in Christ’s image. The most profound yearning of the human spirit, which we try to fill with all sorts of inadequate substitutes , is the yearning for our completeness in the image of Christ.’ That’s from Invitation to a Journey by M.Robert Mulholland JR, expanded by Ruth Haley Barton
I love it when a writer is so desperate to get something across that they say it three times. I love preaching that says the same thing three ways, so that we walk around the subject, as if we’re walking around a person, we look at this way and then that, seeing this shadow and that plane, seeing it sideways, above, below, face on… we listen in 3D. I know just such a preacher and his stuff hits home, not a word is wasted, nothing -I think – forgotten.
I read that Mulholland text just last night, and this morning I had an email from a friend who has just finished reading my book. She was particularly pleased by how it ended (some wit out there is already changing that to ‘she was particularly pleased when it ended’). The last page covers the moment when, at 35, I suddenly, painfully, longed to know God, so her email and the Mulholland excerpt came together with real power for me this morning. This is the (shortened) email I sent in reply:
“That moment at the end of the book came just before we left for South Africa. When we arrived in Durban I went to the local Catholic Church but still I couldn’t reconcile my thoughts of God with the bribable god they seemed to promote. George could see this was important to me and we went together to meet the Catholic priest. This was a big big thing for George, who hated all religion and really couldn’t understand why I needed this crutch (as he saw it) but being a kind man he wanted to understand. Our marriage was very strained and maybe he just thought if I found a church to distract me things would improve! The priest was hopeless! Both George and me had a fit of the giggles as we left. At one point one of us had asked him a question that he couldn’t answer and instead he said something like “I have books about it, I have a book in the other room, it’s a very big book.“ That became a family saying for us, whenever we realised that we were making a statement that we couldn’t back up and might be wrong we would say “I have a book about it and it’s a very big book!“ And then we’d both fall about laughing. I still couldn’t worship a God who was bribable, and I couldn’t pray to the dead or trust the confessional and I wouldn’t pray to Mary… So I was a bit lost. Anyway, shortly after this a Canadian woman came into our house bearing a plate of brownies. Her husband was the Baptist Minister and they lived a few houses away.’
That’s where I heard the Gospel for the first time, in a simple Baptist Church. What a great memory for New Year’s Eve. What a great reminder that the most profound longing of the human heart is the longing for God. And what a great reminder that when we look for God, we will find him. Even if he has to take us halfway across the world to make it happen. He stands at the door and knocks.
A few months later I accepted Jesus Christ as my God and my saviour. A few months after that my scientific, engineer, ‘no crutch needed here’ husband was also bowled over by the goodness and reality of God.
Happy New Year.
(when it comes!)