My memories of my birthdays as a child are of getting dressed in front of the fire on a cold winter morning, of snow brightness outside or dark so insistent that the lights inside couldn’t quite drive it away. Those mornings were drenched with the knowledge that the Christmas holidays were over, and the slog of winter lay ahead. But there was also a shimmer of excitement and of wonder, that often lead to me being overwrought by the time I’d had my party after school. It seemed there was so much going on in me and around me that I rarely managed to get the day without crying, despite my Mum’s annual warning that it was bad luck to cry on my birthday.
Later on, I seized on the fact that my birthday was considered by some to be Twelfth Night, enjoying the implications of its traditions of reversal, such as those included in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, including a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman. Still later, when diets, detoxes money worries and general exhaustion would often intrude on plans to celebrate, I always kept to a far off promise I made on those days of returning to school that I would not work on my birthday, often finding some small, personal way to celebrate, such as visiting a gallery, taking a novel to a cafe and reading all afternoon.
Thinking of those dark winter birthdays, the bleakness of winter that followed it, I think again of the line that has stuck with me over the Christmas period since I heard it referred to in a sermon I caught on the radio: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I’ve repeated these words, which are in the Book of John, often since then – because some of the days have seemed very dark. But what is the light that shines in the darkness, the one that can’t be consumed? Is it the light and energy I see in all my younger selves who struggled against the elements of a winter birthday, but still managed to celebrate life? Is it in the parties and gatherings of friends in Athens, one of whom told me that although she felt something had changed over the past five years, there was still fun and celebration? Or the theatre space set up in the midst of the refugee camp in Calais? I don’t know if that stacks up against all the awful things that are going on, but last night I found myself talking about a woman in her eighties I once met who showed me the diaries she had kept as a teenager in London during the war. “Perhaps I should have been more serious,” she said as we looked through her entries about dances in the air raid shelter and her weekly visits to a dance hall. But wasn’t there something beautiful too about the fact that she was so determined to dance and have fun, just like any other teenager? I know there is so much more we need to do, but when times are dark, maybe light, joy and celebration can be seen as acts of defiance?