Rituals are the routines by which we count our hours and days, but now it’s another new year and it is a time to break with old habits and give a fresh start.

Joan Bakewell


It could be regarded as a dull soul who did not raise a glass on the last night of 2004. Whether it’s among a motley crowd of strangers, or sitting alone before the television, surely the ritual deserves acknowledgment. In my memory, the image that lingers is one of clocks: carriage clocks, Victorian railway clocks, the face of Big Ben, strong Roman numerals, neat plain numbers, even the blinking of the digital. Shut your eyes, and they emerge from the past, seared on the retina year after year marking the man-made calendar. “No different from any other day,” says the New Year’s equivalent of Scrooge, the wet blanket who goes to bed early with cocoa and no companions. But that is to miss the entire point. Rituals define us.

We have to have rituals: indeed, we live our lives by them. The feeding rituals of three meals a day, coffee and tea breaks, an evening drink, the final nightcap; the annual rituals of birthdays and anniversaries. Rituals are but the grand forms, habits the daily fodder. Both are the repeating routines by which we count our hours and days. Rites of passage mark the shift from one set of rituals to another. Students give up on the three meals a day; the retired give up the commuter train into work. Religions have built virtually impregnable rituals to back up implausible stories. That’s why so many of us who have given up on the creed still go for the carol service and the Easter hymns. There is nothing bogus about this. The stories themselves carry for the agnostic the message of hope, renewal and salvation, which for Christians is vested in the figure of Christ. Non-believers need that message and its rituals too.The more multicultural we become, the more rituals we have. Schoolchildren in Britain now celebrate Dipawali, the Jewish and Chinese new years and probably others I haven’t heard of. Western tourists to Madurai throw lumps of butter at giant Hindu gods; the Queen covers her head in a Sikh temple in London. We are on a colossal ritual-sharing around the world. Currently, we are all caught up in the rituals of grief, moving with those personally involved in the tsunami along the pathway grief slowly takes towards some acceptance of loss. No doubt our shared feeling will express itself in services of remembrance, memorial ceremonies and such. Rituals offer comfort, in the bleak world of such random cruelties.

Getting older involves a radical shift in rituals. The higher ones remain, of course, although at Christmas we sit in the corner nursing a glass of mulled wine, rather than ricocheting round the kitchen in a panic of unfamiliar recipes and too many mince pies. Daily behaviours that are no more than entrenched habits somehow refuse to budge. How am I to persuade myself that I no longer need the alarm clock to go off at 7am? When am I to realise that I don’t have to work five days and then enjoy the weekend off? I can work and play just as I like. But try telling that to my inner self. I am only slowly coming to realise that I don’t need a holiday, but can go when the costs are cheaper, the climate cooler, and the beach is not swarming with families. New rituals arrive. Collecting the pension at the post office was once a comforting and regular excursion for loads of the old, snatched from them by the government’s wish for everyone to have bank accounts. Plenty of us don’t have, and don’t want, bank accounts. If you’ve never had one, retirement age is no age to start.

The loss of post offices through closures takes with it a whole host of other, tiny rituals: applying for licences of all sorts, for currency of different varieties, posting parcels, all that stamping and registering. There was something comforting about those homely queues, with their gossip, thoughts on the weather, comments, sour and sweet, about the government or neighbours. But good things happen too. Health is now transformed for the better by all the rituals of prevention: flu jabs, mammograms, annual check-ups... When were we so looked after even before we’re ill? As the year closes, the one ritual that itself endorses change comes around: the New Year’s resolution. For a shared moment we can turn out the attic of old customs and redundant habits, and try to usher in new ways of doing things. Only the Scrooge who refuses the glass of wine thinks nothing can change. Even the old don’t need to be stuck in their ways. I shall start by giving up that 7am alarm call.