In the last days of the year we celebrate and are looking back. What do we see? And is it giving us comfort? During the 'Winternight for non-believers' at the 'Nieuwe Liefde'-centre in Amsterdam Boris van der Ham, chairman of the Dutch Humanists, was charing his thoughts.
Light takes time
Traditionally we are inclined to look back, at the end of the year. Lists of the best pop songs and greatest films of the year are abundant.
We take stock of our own lives too. Some of us found love, others found themselves on their own again. Some of us had children, whereas others lost a child.
Every country looks at its own highs and lows. For the Netherlands, my country, the national football team brought a high with its performance at the World Cup. The absolute low of this year was the murder of 298 people over Ukrainian territory, where 196 Dutch lives were lost.
That low did however show unexpected strength too. A day of national mourning was held, all of the Netherlands observed one minute's silence. In such a complicated, fitful and individualist world, all of a sudden we proved to have the wonderful talent for a concerted effort.
This is how new rituals take shape, off the cuff, or how old patterns find new meaning. After all, marriage – relieved of its social obligation – still shows undiminished popularity. In years past, it was seen as 'progressive' to describe marriage as an outdated and solely symbolic institution, whereas marriage is now seen as a modern right for all sorts op couples, fiercely debated political and social issue in many countries.
Why do we engage in this kind of symbolic tradition?
Philosopher Hannah Ahrendt once stated that people are essentially unpredictable and unreliable, a fact which is reinforced – or possibly caused – by the unpredictable and unreliable world they live in, rife with chaos. According to her, this was the reason people keep trying to bring some kind of order to the chaos, by making treaties and agreements. Ahrendt says people endeavour, through these artificial arrangements, to create 'certain islands of predictability' in the ocean of uncertainty.
In her philosophical work Ahrendt referred to political treaties between countries, but in my opinion a romantic trip down the aisle or a minute's silence, are too a small home-made allotment, where we try to mark something intangible: the intangibility of faithfulness, or the impenetrability of death.
The next few days move according to the rituals of Christmas. Unlike the unpredictability of disaster or of love, we know that these days return year after year. After all, the winter solstice takes place near the 21st of December every year, that point in time when the darkest days are left behind, and each day sees a little more light.
Northern Europeans have celebrated Midwinter since time memorial, the ancient Romans had their Saturnalia feasts and several religions have seized upon the solstice to give it a religious connotation.
Even in our modern take on the holidays, they are bursting with meaning. We have to be happy together, there has to be a frenzy of present-giving, our families have to be complete, we want to sing, reflect, laugh, eat – all in all: everything has to be perfect. Sometimes we manage this, but just as often the strained atmosphere can culminate in spectacularly failed main courses, lukewarm kindness or simply a volatile argument.
Our concerted efforts to make these days as festive as possible sometimes result in the revelation that we ourselves may not be feeling particularly festive. For instance, it becomes clear that in spite of our brave effort to mark off an island of mourning, we still miss someone badly. Or that love is not as pure, as it seemed at the beginning.
In a year when nothing is ever certain, and we must still craft agreements and times with our bare hands, it makes sense to take time off from that very labour during these days. In the ocean of uncertainty there is finally a light on the horizon, that we have not had to put there ourselves.
The return of the light is not an easily fitting ritual, to match some convenient task of our own making, it grows at a glacial pace. Light takes time, like growing beans.
Patiently waiting for sunnier days teaches us patience and the metaphoric realisation of time's passage. That can be a comfort. In fact, it is the best Christmas present you could wish for: delicate and yet celestial in proportion.
Boris van der Ham
Chairman of the Dutch Humanist Association