Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner http://www.scotland.org/whats-on/hogmanay/ and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.
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The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:

 

December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

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Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.

 

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Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.

Oops!

Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

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A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!

Christmas – Let Us All Rejoice

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

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Recently, I celebrated and wrote about Eid and Diwali, major religious festivals at this time of year with similar customs to the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Over the next few posts I’ll share memories of Christmas, the celebration that is part of my culture and Christianity, the religion most familiar to me.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.

Albert Einstein

As I finish my teaching term before the holidays, it is customary to exchange cards and gifts and share special festive foods in the lead up to Christmas.

Some schools and workplaces have Secret Santas or Kris Kringles, special Christmas parties and meals and even outings. It helps that we are heading into summer and annual holidays. The thought of a long break and perhaps an exciting time ahead certainly makes it easier to be in a jolly party mood.

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I’m also aware of the celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light because several students are Jewish.

Just as Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God and the Light of the world, Jews celebrate the importance of light.

Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.

Jesus “Christ” is known as the founder or central figure of “Christianity.” Christmas is a Christian holiday on December 25 that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Ancient Romans also commemorated Jesus’ birth by marking a division of the calendar still in use today. The years before Jesus’ birth are marked as B.C. (Before Christ), and the years after Jesus’ birth are marked A.D. (Anno Domini, which means, in the year of our Lord).

Christmas literally means the Mass (celebration) of Christ. “Christ” is a Greek word and title, meaning “anointed” or one set apart by God for a special purpose. “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Based on the words of ancient prophets, the first century Jewish people expected the arrival of the Messiah promised by God as a great deliverer of the people.

When the world seems to be in disarray, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by happiness as people plan family get togethers, holidays, and special meals. Festivities and rituals brighten the mundane to give deeper meaning to communities and individual lives.

In a multicultural country like Australia where Christmas festivities and decorations last through to the New Year, schools and workplaces celebrate regardless of whether people are Christian – it is a time to reach out and spread goodwill.

Love and joy can be infectious!

A Christmas Triolet
Mairi Neil

Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion
Togetherness, binding like whipped cream
Peace on earth, my Christmas dream
Love and kindness must reign supreme
To mark the joy of a global occasion
Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion

Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness
No matter where evil has dwelled
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Belief in humanity encouraged and upheld
To do otherwise is destructive madness
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness

Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds
The spirit of Christmas can unite
Let tolerance be your guiding light
Christian principles shining bright
Spreading Love’s promising seeds
Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds

Houses are decorated as are shopping centres, public buildings and even streets. Although it’s only the beginning of December evidence of people embracing Christmas mode is everywhere. The staff at Mordialloc Railway Station have added some new tinsel to well-worn decorations and a house near Longbeach Place in Chelsea is into the spirit of the season.

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Today, as I walked down to Mordialloc foreshore for the annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach with the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, soothing Christmasy songs floated in the air. The nursing home on the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets prepared for a family Christmas party. Young people helped staff decorate several tables arranged under a marquee.

Hopefully, the music, planned festivities, and presence of family will trigger happy memories for the residents of the home, many of whom suffer dementia. Even if they don’t know what the fuss is about, the activity and presence of young people should brighten their day – it certainly brightened mine as I walked past.

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Some people have the tradition of sending a letter to all of their family members and friends reporting on the major events of the year. Others have particular traditions like decorating the tree, attending Carols by Candlelight, or baking Christmas cake, plum pudding and sharing a meal with extended family. Others always holiday at the same place each year and prepare for Christmas away from home.

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we always have a ‘real’ Christmas tree, the smell of pine needles synonymous with Christmas

I was brought up a Christian and in my Scottish Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) childhood, celebrating the birth of Jesus made Christmas Day and the days leading up to it (Advent), exciting and special. The emphasis on the New Testament’s teachings about loving one another and peace and goodwill towards all mankind were the messages stressed in prayers and hymns.

Although I only occasionally attend a particular denominational church today, I still see Christmas in this light. Santa Claus, rampant consumerism, eating and partying to excess is not my idea of Christmas.

In fact, Scotland did not declare Christmas Day a public holiday until 1958. Christmas in Scotland was traditionally observed very quietly, the emphasis on religious observance not the Christmas festival.

Christmas Giving
Mairi Neil

Generosity heart warming and kind
Inspiring others to rejoice and give
For children the anticipation is exciting
Their joy and delight infectious at
Sharing gifts as well as receiving

Father Christmas  a benign fantasy figure when I was a child. My working class parents explained that he only brought to each child what the parents could afford. This explanation the same one I gave to my children while emphasising it is a season more about giving than receiving!

A great example of bringing Christmas joy to children while practising Christian charity is Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s “Give a toy to a child in detention”. An opportunity for us to show compassion and care – qualities our Government has lost in its shameful treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

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I teach adults from many different backgrounds and with a range of life experiences. Here is a poem one class wrote:

Class Acrostic Poem 2008

Coming together at Christmas
Happiness for families
Rituals rich in memories
Insights are gained playing inside games
Stirring the pudding
Tinsel and berries, togetherness and traditions
Merrymaking, mulled wine, and mistletoe
Acceptance of gifts and family idiosyncrasies
Sweets, sauces, and sugar plum fairies

More than families have idiosyncrasies looking at Melbourne City Council’s Christmas decorations this year – they’ve got into the craze of yarn art like Longbeach Place! The expertise, time and effort in ‘dressing’ these trees certainly shows devotion.

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The Council workers are also erecting a traditional Santa’s Village which was under construction the night I was in the city.

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The magnificent spire of St Paul’s in the background – a good reminder Jesus is the reason for the season.

Christmas Joy
Mairi Neil

Let’s celebrate another Christmas,
perhaps relive the happiness and joy
that those first Christians felt
when they heard of the birth
of that special boy.
The baby fulfilled God’s promise
from the East travelled Kings three
guided by the Star of Bethlehem
knowing that they would see
a host of angels singing aloud,
and shepherds leaving their flocks
Around the manger all would crowd
to witness the amazing miracle
of the birth of that special child
agreeing He’d been sent to Earth
To secure peace,
Also tolerance and Love
and a place for the meek and mild.

One of my lessons last week focused on Christmas and similar religious celebrations. This is always a rich subject for writers to mine, particularly if you seek publication.

Shelves of bookshops and libraries sag with specialised or niche books. You can start writing today and have something ready for next year’s season – or the year after!

  • Write your annual letter  to family and/or friends recounting the good and bad things that have happened to you this year that could be considered noteworthy. (This could be factual or exaggerated, poignant or amusing.)
  • Write a poem titled Christmas Is… (substitute  your special celebration/belief if it differs from Christmas)
  • List all the trappings, events, beliefs, ‘to do’ list that make your  celebration memorable.
  • How has the celebration changed for you since childhood.
  • Is there one particular year that stands out?
  • Write a memory of the happiest Christmas.
  • A Christmas that was a disaster.
  • Have you ever celebrated Christmas,Hanukkah, Ramadan,Diwali… away from home? With people who had a different custom?
  • Have you a favourite recipe to share that marks these festivities?
  • What difference has technology made to your celebrations – do you still post cards? Have you discovered old or new friends through social media?
  • Did you believe in Santa Claus? When did you stop? Were you honest with your children/grandchildren?
  • Did you ever take part in a school play – what part did you play?
  • What’s the best present you ever received? Why?
  • What’s the worst present? Why?
  • Have you ever regretted or been embarrassed by a present you bought?

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