The season of January
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Well, here we are in January, the start of our calendar year, the first month named after Janus the Roman god known as the protector of gates and doorways.
It’s a tricky one, a marmite month if you will, and love it or hate it - it’s always here again eventually, and the older you get all too quickly.
The more I’ve dwelt on January the more I feel like it’s the official month of opposites, contradictions, extremes. But before I dig into that a bit more, what do we know about this month?
Well, in the UK it’s often cold and according to the meteorological calendar it’s the middle of the three months of winter, and it often feels like it. However, the astronomical winter starts late December, so January is really the beginning of three months of winter. Either way the Christmas lights are gone and dark, cold, wet days are upon us. At the moment I could sit in my lounge at 9am and feel like it was about 5:30pm. It's dark, dreary and not the most motivating atmosphere to start a new day.
It’s not quite as exciting with cold and snow as the month poems might want us to believe, even though January is the most likely month to get snow in the UK:
January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow. The Garden Year, Sara Coleridge
January falls the snow. Each Month, Unknown
In January comes the snow, And the glad New Year, you know. Months of the Year, Unknown
The Winter months of January, February, and March do bring Cold weather for skating, and tobogganing We tend to stay more indoors The cold is not what many adore. The Months of The Seasons, Kate Summers
If it were January all the year, I wonder if I'd like it here, Finding every place I go— Snow, snow, always snow! If It Were January All the Year, Annette Wynne
Fun fact; the lowest ever recorded temperature in England was in January at -26C (-15F) in 1982, Shropshire. And it is, on average, the coldest month of the year within most of the Northern Hemisphere and the warmest month of the year within most of the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s the second month of summer). In the Southern hemisphere, January is the seasonal equivalent of July in the Northern Hemisphere and vice versa.
January is the first month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars and is also the first of seven months to have 31 days. And as we’re all very aware, the first day of the month is known as New Year's Day.
As you’ll remember from my previous blogs, traditionally, the original Roman calendar consisted of 10 months, this was because winter was considered a month-less, dormant period, both in terms of agriculture and making war - it was a time of peace. Until March that is, a month named after the god of war - Mars. Then around 713 BC the months of January and February were added so the calendar covered a standard lunar year. So where March was originally the first month in the old Roman calendar, January became the first month of the calendar year about 450 BC ish, and I still maintain it would have been much easier to add them to the end and not the beginning so all the names of the months made sense, but who am I to comment? (In truth when I looked this up they were added to the end of the religious year, but for administration purposes 1st January eventually became the beginning of the year instead of 1st March).
January's birthstone is the garnet, which represents constancy and is a red colour similar to a ruby. Its birth flower is the Pink Dianthus, Galanthus (a snowdrop) as well as the traditional carnation, and the name of the full moon occurring in January is the Wolf Moon (which sounds pretty bad ass to me, as far as moons go).
And of course January is remembered to most of us because of its link to New Year’s Eve (even though most of that falls in December). It’s a time of people making resolutions, new goals, decisions and promises, and the poems that don’t focus on snow nod towards that aspect instead:
January’s new A Little Calendar, Annette Wynne
January, the start of the year, could be considered a new beginning To set your goals and keep on living. Months Of The Year, Catherine Pulsifer
And in the poem ‘Beautiful Things’ it moves from April to September and skips all the other months completely!
Like it or lump it January is a time of moving from one year into another and with that will come a lot of joy, but also sadness.
With my loss hat on, thinking of people who have lost someone or something over the last 12 months, I imagine it’s hard to move out of the year when that happened. I imagine saying you lost so-and-so ‘last year’ feels further away than you want it to be, when it’s really just months. I know if I was moving into a new year and it was my first year without Chris I’d find that really heart-breaking. New ground without him, a year number that he never saw. As New Year ticked over this year I thought of two people Chris and I knew that died in December - they didn’t make it over this line into this year with the rest of us, their journey was done, their end year was always going to be 2022, though they’d never have known it. I think about speaking to one of them in November and neither of us having any idea that he wouldn’t be here in January.
New years bring a lot of these sorts of thoughts to the fore, and you can choose to accept that or you can fear it and ignore it, but I think you know me well enough to know that I’m not going to promote the second option. Life is unpredictable and as far as I can see, grabbing what we have and enjoying it every day is the only way to circumnavigate it. Every new year ahead holds things we don’t know about, we worry about other people we know and love but we don’t even know if we’ll be here to see the next one. As I was packing up my advent stable again this year, putting the characters in different boxes so they emerge in an unexpected order next Christmas, I found myself thinking ‘will I be here to unpack them? or will someone else be doing that next year.’ Nothing is guaranteed, but that doesn’t scare me or depress me, it fascinates me. And I think January is the month when a lot of thoughts and assessments naturally happen in us, whether we want them to or not.
We, like many UK gardeners, have a lot of plants and trees that have suffered greatly in the consistent wet, prolonged snow and cold temperatures we had in December (right after I published a blog talking about snow being unlikely). Plants that should be green right now (evergreen ones mostly) are black...
Strong trunks are soggy and collapsing...
As new growth chugs on beneath the surface we all wait to see what will bounce back and what is gone forever. The ground guarding its secrets well until spring time. And yet at the same time, some of the plants I have, that are made to bloom in winter, are bringing me a lot of joy.
My Willow tree has the buds of it’s fluffy catkin things ready to open on the bare branches soon...
The winter clematis is still full of flowers that survived the snow...
New shoots from crocuses are pushing up from the soil...
And my Edgeworthia is holding onto its flower buds that will soon open into yellow blooms, full of scent, at the end of it’s branches...
(and you can see pictures of what this amazing tree looks like in the very first season blog I did - The Season of March).
The hedgehogs have stopped coming to the garden for food, safely tucked up and hibernating somewhere till spring, and Scragglepie my magpie with the dodgy wings, well, I haven’t seen him for a little while, but I’m hopeful he’s doing ok wherever he is. So as I look out on my garden I see death and damage but I also see new life and potential resurrection. Contradictions side by side. And that seems to be what January is packed with for me.
Even December and January, are contradictions as we move from one to the next. December is full of Christmas, celebration, festive lights and great food, and is apparently the most common month to get engaged. January is full of winter long grey dark days (for the UK anyway) and is nicknamed ‘Divorce Month’ because it’s the most common month for divorces. Fortunately the segway from one into the next is New Year’s Eve celebrations, Christmas lights still up for a bit, and time off work, which all soften the blow.
January is also a common time for people to commit to new exercise regimes and promises to get in shape and be healthier (morning gym sessions packed with people dripping in good intentions and perspiration), but it is also the most common month to die.
And this year its also a month of illness where everyone in England seems to be suffering, just getting over something, dealing with a lingering thing, or hiding in fear of it all. Weeks after my last bout of my coldy-flu thing I can still hear it in my voice and have to keep stopping the recording to cough or clear my throat (that's where you're grateful I edit this!).
January is the time people exclaim ‘New year, new me!’ and reinvent themselves, but it’s also the time of year people feel most the ‘same old them’ and get depressed. Although as a side note, suicide rates are higher in spring and summer than in winter, which I thought was interesting. (This is all a bit Northern Hemisphere based, so please excuse me if your New Year blues take place on a beach in the Southern Hemisphere somewhere.)
The last day in December is the end of an old year, the first day of January is the start of an entirely new year. The death of an old year, the birth of a new one, it doesn’t get more extreme than that as you move from one month into another.
So many extremes, and where there are extremes,there are also… good ol’ ‘choices’. And we might all get a bit fed up with the whole ‘what resolutions and goals are you setting this year?’ type pressure, but whether you engage with that or not, I do think January is a month of choice.
As I briefly mentioned before, January was named after the Roman god Janus, known as the protector of gates and doorways, symbolising beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. Again we find contradictions, opposites and extremes in this symbolism. If you Google pictures of Janus (or look at the social media for this blog or the blog on the website) you’ll see Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking into the past, the other with the ability to see into the future. I think this is the perfect depiction of January. We are standing at the doorway to a new year, and we can’t help but look forward or look back, or try to do both. And I believe how you feel about this month now, and in the future, will depend on how you go through that doorway, or how you have in the past.
Maybe you’re running full pelt through it, desperate to get into a new year and as far away as possible from last year.
Maybe you’ve been dragged through by the clock and you’re desperately catching every last glimpse of the old year as the door slowly closes on you.
Maybe you’re hovering with one foot either side unsure which way you want to go until the door closes, forcing you to move into the new year before it leaves you stuck in the old year (metaphorically of course, don’t worry it’s not actually possible to literally get stuck in last year).
Maybe you’re just sauntering through the doorway going with the flow and you’re not really sure it means anything at all.
Maybe you’re angry at the doorway and trying to ignore it or smash it and destroy it (quick note for you, these metaphorical doorways are almost impossible to damage).
Maybe you’ve been watching this doorway for months, afraid to glance back, waiting for it to open and take you somewhere else so there’s finally a closed door between you and last year.
Maybe you have others peeling you off the door as it closes because you’re heartbroken that year has passed.
Maybe you’ve walked through, as you believe you have to, and now you’re just ‘well, here I am, what now?’
Maybe you’re waiting to see what new horrors this new year has and you’re bracing yourself for the onslaught.
Maybe you’ve dragged all your fears, disappointments, shame, sadness, tears and pain with you through the doorway and you’re standing surrounded by them, wishing you hadn’t.
Maybe you’ve walked through the doorway having left all your baggage behind and you’re deciding to start afresh.
Maybe you had an incredibly painful transition through this doorway one year and the scars are still there every time you step over the threshold.
Maybe you’re walking through holding tightly to something you know you need to let go of, but just can’t seem to bring yourself to do it.
Maybe you’re hopeful, you believe in things working out, getting better, and you are genuinely expecting good things, new lessons or blessings, having left your old fears and failures behind to start again.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re feeling, there are two aspects to crossing through this doorway that you need to know:
You have to do it. But you don’t have to do it the same way every year or the same way as everyone else.
There’s also a choice about how you do it.
Janus has the right idea, one eye on the past and one eye on looking forwards is not a bad way to move into a new year. We learn from the past, we hope for the future, they are extremes but they are important ones to hold in tension.
I’m not a ‘walking through doorway expert’ but I do know that getting through a doorway is a lot easier when you focus on the transition through the door. If your focus is 100% on what’s behind you it’s impossible to navigate through a new door, because you’ll either be walking backwards or your head will be at a 180 angle like an owl. If your focus is 100% on potential dangers, troubles, things you’re worried about, you’re distracted and not focusing on the basics of the now, like pulling down the handle and opening the door to see what new things are on the other side. If your focus is only down on your feet, you’re going to walk into the closed door and bang your head. If you only look too far forwards you’ll panic because you can’t see through the door or how to get through it. You need to face the door, assess how you get through, open the handle and push the door to see what’s on the other side, lift your feet and step through, move forwards, look behind and take stock before you close the door and face forwards again.
There will always be times for looking back and times for looking forward and I believe entering January is a time when all that happens naturally, which will raise a lot of emotions for us, that’s natural. Our gaze might be tinged with sadness as we glimpse what’s behind, but we don’t leave it there, a door to the year might close but that doesn’t separate us from all the stuff that comes with us from our past, you can’t separate yourself from that, and neither should you want to fully. The whole ‘new year, new you’ is not really a thing at all. You can’t be a ‘new you’, you can commit to change and be someone better (because who really commits to being someone worse anyway!), but you can’t be a ‘new you’, because your baggage, your pain, your fear, your shame, it comes with you, either dragging behind you and slowing you down or as something you dropped along the way and now it’s what motivates you to move forward, but either way, it’s still part of you. You can’t change the past but you can change what’s ahead and what you take with you along the way.
I find that if you want to change what’s ahead, a great starting point is choosing to focus on what you’re thankful for now. And we covered it in Episode 61 of the podcast - ‘Another new year? Why?!!’ - where we looked at ways to help you turn New Year from foe into friend (it also includes 20 questions you can ask yourself to assess these things if you need some help in that area.)
Thankfulness helps you focus on what you have and using that as a foundation to move forward allows you to get a firm footing, Trying to build hope and futures on disappointment, fear or shame is kinda slippery and not very secure, so move your gaze to what you have, rather than what you don’t have, and you’ll experience the freedom there is in choosing how to move forwards, how to feel, how to behave and how to survive.
Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has many - not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Charles Dickens
January is a dark time for many (literally in the UK) and there is even a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, (which is literally a sad name for a condition!). It’s a winter depression, thought to have been caused by lack of sunlight that affects the brain. However, in some of the countries where this should be the most prevalent like Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden, the opposite has occurred and they consistently land the top spots on the World’s Happiness Index. How? you ask. Well, psychologists are saying it’s down to mindset. A study in 2014 showed that your stress mindset makes a huge difference, and when you perceive stress as helpful rather than a hindrance it changes everything. In those countries with long, dark winters where the sun never climbs over the horizon they have found that rates of SAD are surprisingly low because they’ve cultivated an attitude towards winter as one of celebration and something to enjoy rather than endure, valuing cosiness, companionship and nature, and taking pleasure in simple things. In those countries choosing to focus on what they have, rather than what they don’t have, literally not only helps them survive dark winters but also allows them to thrive through it.
So much of what we experience can be impacted by choice, and yet the world would want to tell you the exact opposite.
So, how are you going into this new year? How have you passed through the doorway? What do you want to change? What do you want to choose? The good news is that if you came into January in a less than ideal way, you can, at any time of the year create another doorway to walk through, pick a day and walk into the one after it exactly how you want to pass through new year. Because how we enter January can be how we enter any day or every day. You can start a new chapter every day, you can begin again on any day of the week or month. And for those of you with a faith you’ll be familiar with that concept because there’s a bit in the book of Lamentations that says:
God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, His merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! Lamentations 3:22-23, The Bible
Christians, alcoholics, those with addictions, those in immense grief, those facing end of life - so many groups of people know the value in just taking life one day at a time.
By taking your recovery one day at a time with AA, you make sobriety about daily victories that are manageable, achievable, and worth celebrating. You set yourself up for daily success instead of worrying about potential future relapses... Affirming what is true for you right now—even if it is in some ways a goal you hope to achieve fully in the future—keeps you mindful of the moment. It helps you live for today Alcoholicsanonymous.com
And there’s that word - hope - ‘a goal you hope to achieve in the future’. And as far as hope goes, well again it’s a choice to believe that there are good things ahead. When it comes to months of the year, January might be dark, and a bit frustrating, and annoying with its resolutions and all that, in fact Ellwood Roberts refers to it as the ‘solemn midnight of the year’. I love that phrase, the midnight of the year, because midnight might seem like a bleak time, almost the middle of the night, but at the same time, it’s when the clock ticks over towards the morning, and January is dark but it’s also one step closer to spring, and that’s something to be thankful for (in the UK Northern Hemisphere at least).
The last verse of ‘January’ by Ellwood Roberts says this:
Midwinter days and nights so drear, With storm-clouds sweeping o'er the sky— The solemn midnight of the year Soon pass and leave no token nigh. Bare trees that quake beneath the blast, Will yet be clothed in leafage bright, And days so chill—the Winter past— Be bathed in floods of Spring-time light. January, Ellwood Roberts
When I wrote my November blog I used a poem by Alice Cary called ‘November’ and I quoted the first few lines, but when I read the rest of the poem I was struck by how this would be something that would probably encourage us more in January or February than November:
The leaves are fading and falling, The winds are rough and wild, The birds have ceased their calling, But let me tell, you my child, Though day by day, as it closes, Doth darker and colder grow, The roots of the bright red roses Will keep alive in the snow. And when the Winter is over, The boughs will get new leaves, The quail come back to the clover, And the swallow back to the eaves. The robin will wear on his bosom A vest that is bright and new, And the loveliest way-side blossom Will shine with the sun and dew. The leaves to-day are whirling, The brooks are all dry and dumb, But let me tell, you my darling, The Spring will be sure to come. There must be rough, cold weather, And winds and rains so wild; Not all good things together Come to us here, my child. So, when some dear joy loses Its beauteous summer glow, Think how the roots of the roses Are kept alive in the snow. November by Alice Cary
There is much going on under the soil right now, the roots of many plants and flowers are being kept alive under the snow, the rain, the wet, the cold.
In one of my favourite songs, Seasons, that I’ve clung to for many years for the words about waiting for your season to come, it says this:
Like the frost on a rose Winter comes for us all Oh how nature acquaints us With the nature of patience Like a seed in the snow I’ve been buried to grow For Your promise is loyal From seed to sequoia. Though the winter is long, even richer The harvest it brings Though my waiting prolongs, even greater Your promise for me like a seed I believe that my season will come Seasons, Chris Davenport, Benjamin Hastings & Ben Tan
And I have chosen on many occasions, when I felt buried, to choose to believe that I’ve been ‘buried to grow’. Like the old saying goes - ‘Bloom where you’re planted.’
So how have you entered January? Are you proud of it? Do you need to think about re-doing it? Have you judged this season harshly because of previous experiences with it? Do you unfairly walk into January already disliking it? Every season has its purpose, every month is teaching me about things, myself or the time of year - things to be thankful for, things to learn about, things to be challenged by. If you’re a January-hater maybe consider finding a way to reword that. Next time you speak to someone instead of saying you don’t like January, say ‘I find January really challenging’ or ‘I find it hard to find things to be thankful for in January’ or ‘January is tough for me because it makes me face things I don’t want to’, or even ‘January makes me thankful for summer’, you never know, it might start and interesting conversation and help someone else view this time of year in a different way too. When we don’t like things and make blanket statements about them we pass them down the generations and around our communities. Wouldn’t it be great if we left those old ways behind in last year and just looked forward to what this new January has in store for us, maybe it’s going to surprise you and excite you like no month has before.
And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been. Rainer Maria Rilke