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Those without a religious calendar follow a similar path

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue writes in The Times on secular and religious calendars.


As 2018 diaries are opened up, it is clear that a transformation is taking place in the dates we observe.

At first glance it seems that the religious calendar is slipping away, with few references in those diaries to the sacred occasions that used to punctuate it, such as Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. Only Easter and Christmas appear to be worth a mention.

Instead, a parallel calendar has developed, including New Year’s Eve, Burns Night, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, St George’s Day, April’s Fools Day, Father’s Day, Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes Night, Remembrance Sunday, Thanksgiving, Diwali, and, the latest addition, Black Friday.

Some had religious origins, but have been secularised with new meanings; others are imports that reflect our increasingly diverse population; others are commercial rebrands of earlier traditions.
What is so striking is that in many ways this new calendar replicates exactly the same set of religious feelings that today’s society thinks it has outgrown.

Wherever you are at New Year’s Eve, it is hard not to think about beginnings and endings, sigh a little over mistakes made and hurts received, as well as look ahead and make resolutions. It is a time of death and rebirth, of loss and renewal (and that sounds fairly religious to me).

Once you peer underneath the surface froth of Valentine’s Day, what is so engaging is that it celebrates one of the most powerful emotions we possess — the love of one person for another. It puts on a pedestal the best that love involves: passion, commitment and loyalty (which are strong religious values too).

Similarly, secular citizens may have abandoned many religious rituals, yet instinctively feel the need to create others when expressing personal relationships: from cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, to a bottle of something on Father’s Day. It is perilously close to “Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother”.

Hallowe’en may have been overtaken by outlandish costumes, but there is no disguising the deeper theme of good and evil, and the choices we have to make between pursuing a life of righteousness or following powers of darkness.

Whether we believe in an external devil or an inclination to make bad choices, we need an annual reminder as to how thin is the line that divides our capacity for giving full throttle to the best in us or the worst in us.

Fireworks may dominate Guy Fawkes Night, but a more considered view reveals themes of political intrigue mixed with religious zealotry that are not limited to the 17th century. It is a salutary reminder of how faith can be a force for good and bad.

The renewed observance of Remembrance Sunday touches another religious vein: the sacrifice individuals make for a higher cause, and how the greater good can take precedence over self-survival.

Taken together, these and other dates not only mirror religious sentiments, but imitate the role of the religious calendar in three ways. First, it structures time, turns its endless passage into manageable units, gives them names, and brings time under our control.

Second, it gives meaning to those days, investing them with the emotions that affect us, from sadness to celebration, and makes us feel we have a personal stake in them.

Third, the calendar brings us together with others, so that we are not alone and isolated, but form a community of individuals, be it in places of worship or elsewhere: singing Auld Lang Syne, attending bonfire parties or standing together for a moment’s silence. A shared calendar means social camaraderie.

Of course, for those of faith, then, our festive list already provides a year-long vehicle for expressing the intellectual reflections and emotional needs of individuals. It also offers a way of binding families together, as well as creating a sense of wider cohesion.

No wonder those without a religious calendar seem to be unconsciously reinventing it. Its value may be much more than even its adherents realise.

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