—with this article, our esteemed Professor wishes you all Merry Christmas—
|Father Time, naturally, is a Geezer.|
One of the distinct mixed pleasures of geezerhood springs from our increasingly confident understanding that we’re not going to live forever. Increasing age does compromise some of our sheer physical ability to appreciate and affect the world around us: we don’t hear quite so clearly, we don’t see quite so accurately, we cannot pontificate quite so loudly. But to a large measure these diminished powers are more than compensated for by the fact that we pay closer attention—a byproduct of our increasingly obvious mortality. Ideally the geezer looks more, notices more and savours more. The baseball great Ted Williams had himself frozen, hoping that help would be on the way in a few centuries. Most geezers, though, are quite comfortable with the fact that our lives are limited..
But we also still long for those short outbreaks of simulated immortality—those times when the clock seems (finally) to stop. We savor those moments where it appears there are some things without end—even if they are intangibles such as love, the beauty of music, or the taste of turkey on Thanksgiving. The wish to stop time, to be simultaneously in the past, present and future is present in all cultures, whether it be through ritual worship, cultural observances or carnival. It is also this wish for time to stop that lies beneath one of the most enjoyable aspects of the holiday season which is upon us: tradition.
Anyone who has been a parent can testify to the distinct comfort and enjoyment that children derive from predictable traditions. As children grow older, they can grow away from some family traditions—a logical and healthy way of establishing their own identities. But most of us still welcome those rare moments when we can turn back the clock and re-live past moments, when we can pass on to the next generation the valued practices of the past, and when we can bask in the fleeting delusion that things will always be the same—that some things are permanent..
When a Christian of faith participates in the sacrament of Eucharist (Mass), they find themselves simultaneously in the past (at the time of the Last Supper,) and present (in their place of worship). Moreover, because of the ritualized nature of the ceremony they sense that this same meaningful activity will be practiced well into the future. They exist spiritually in the past, present and future; in other words: time has functionally stopped.
Holiday traditions (which can evolve into rituals) function in a comparable way. When we sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner—with recipes passed down multiple generations by loved ones no longer alive—and tell stories about past Thanksgivings in a way unconsciously constructed to inspire the younger generation, we pursue that most elusive and fulsome of feelings: with echoes of the past, the festivity of the present, and the inspiration of the future, we are temporarily in all three modes. Time has stopped; for just one wisp of a moment in a lifetime otherwise characterized by slavish adherence to the clock, we are immortal.
This is all unstated, of course, and many who find themselves nourished by such moments are not consciously aware of the dynamics taking place. In any event, the clock is an insistent task master, and “real life” resumes whether we like it or not. (Anyone who has woken up on New Year’s Day knows the existential pain of being reminded of one’s mortality after an evening of suspended time—and in many cases, suspended common sense.)
The Italians have a wonderful saying roughly translated as: “you don’t grow old at the table.” A meal is humorous, joyous but also serious business in Italy. A meal is firmly structured, the foods based on tradition, and when properly celebrated it is a moment where the awareness of the clock ticking can be set aside or at least overlooked. A communal meal is nourishing in many ways in addition to mere calories. This effect can be achieved when the meal is sufficiently structured, when the gathering around the table reflects the past and echoes into the future,
The key is understanding how the continuum of habit/tradition/ritual/obsession-compulsion works. When oppressively presented and slavishly observed, some ossified traditions or rituals can restrict or squelch the spirit. But when artfully constructed, joyously shared, and festively enacted, there is nothing like a well observed holiday tradition to give us that fleeting, refreshing (and illusory) whiff of infinity.