Friday, December 26, 2014

The Christmas Miracle

It’s the twenty-fifth of December, and you know what that means: after the orgy of gifts and the festive breakfast, when boredom begins to settle in and you decide to take a walk around the park, the True Miracle of Christmas occurs.

That’s right, this is the one morning of the year when people in Horsham—and possibly throughout West Sussex, and even the rest of the southeast of England—actually acknowledge one another.

To be fair, you can’t say “Good Morning” to everyone on a normal day—there are simply too many people. This is the root of the “Reserved Southerner Syndrome” but it does not explain the practice of—even if you are the only two people crossing paths on the South Downs Way—realizing a sudden urge to fiddle with your smart phone just at the moment you come within eye-contact range of the other person.

People in other parts of the country say “Good Morning.” I have personally witnessed this. Even the famously dour Scots will often stop and chat with you (try to stop them) but the Southerners remain a taciturn lot.

On Christmas morning, however—perhaps because they are imbued with the holiday spirit or, more likely, because there is hardly else anyone around—they will say, “Good morning,” or even, “Merry Christmas.” It’s quite startling if you’re not prepared for it.

And this was how it was this morning when we took a stroll around the town park. The couples, the people out walking their dogs, the parents with kids running around like excited chipmunks—almost all of them looked our way as we passed, smiled and greeted us. It was a strange, though not unpleasant sensation, like being suddenly and inexplicably transported to Devon.

But this phenomenon, like Christmas itself, is ephemeral: before we even completed our walk, as the noon hour approached and more people drifted into the park, the greetings become fewer, more grudging and soon stopped altogether. The joggers began staring resolutely ahead as they passed (yes, jogging, on Christmas morning—give it a rest!), the couples, when they came within hailing distance, suddenly turned toward each other in animated conversation and single people became very interested in the flora and fauna at the sides of the pathway as we went by.

Random Photo: Yes, this is what Christmas morning looked like this year.
It was incredible the lengths people went through to avoid even inadvertent eye-contact. And I’m not suggesting they were doing it intentionally—it’s something inbred, like their affinity for fish and chips and suspicion of foreigners.

Take, for instance, the young woman walking her dog. She was just ahead of us and we were slowly catching up, meaning that we would soon be uncomfortably close to her for an unnervingly long period of time, making unintentional eye-contact almost inevitable. So she stopped to check something on her dog—fleas, ticks, admiring the latest tattoo—until we drew level with her. Then, because we would actually be facing her at that point, she felt a sudden need to swivel and gaze off into the distance, thereby avoiding any possibility of awkward, interpersonal engagement.

When out of ear-shot, I queried my wife about this phenomenon and she equated it to being on a bus and having some creepy guy sit down next to you. “You don’t exactly want to strike up a conversation with him,” she postulated, “so you learn to ignore people.”

I countered with the observation that having to sit next to a potentially undesirable person for a protracted period of time could not compare to passing someone on a semi-secluded pathway, and that, in those fleeting moments, there could not possibly be any harm in acknowledging the existence of the other person.

We didn’t get to pursue the conversation, however, because I noticed a woman sporting spikey dreadlocks and facial tattoos coming our way and felt a sudden urge to fiddle with my smartphone.


  1. That would put me off living in the south. I've lived in Wales, Bath and Basingstoke before the current small boring midlands town, and each of those was progressively less friendly than the last, though only Basingstoke could really be described as properly southern and unfriendly. I'd sort of forgotten about that. I'm quite used to chatting to people now while I walk my dog or in shops.
    Ah well, there's nothing else for it. If I can't move south because it's unfriendly, and I don't want to stay here or to move north because of the weather, I'm definitely going to have to emigrate. At least two more years until that's a real option. Not that I'm counting or anything...
    Merry Christmas, by the way.

    1. When you emigrate, make sure you go some place where the natives are friendly. I found Canadians are happy to start up a conversations if you're standing next to them waiting for a crossing light to change. And Americans are pretty friendly, too.
      Merry Christmas to you and yours -- and a Happy New Year.

  2. So funny. In the NE, where I'm from, although people don't greet each other all the time, there's not so much of the eye-contact-avoidance. And if you're at a bus stop for more than a few minutes, you usually at least acknowledge the person next to you, if only for a grumble.
    Here in Chicago, where you'd think it might be an unfriendly bug city, about 90% of people walking towards you will at least smile and it's a bit rude not to make eye contact.

  3. Replies
    1. "Bug City" provided a better mental image ;)

      But you are right, the population density has little to do with unfriendliness. I've been to NYC several times and was always amazed at how friendly the people were -- Southern Britain...forget it!

  4. I volunteer at the lobby desk of a large clinic. As such, I greet nearly everyone who comes in the door to let them know I'm friendly and approachable. Most people will respond in kind, even it they don't need information, directions or a wheelchair. Out of habit, I often find myself greeting folks and holding doors for them when I'm out-and-about. It's almost always appreciated, but that might be because of the tradition of "Minnesota Nice". I naturally assume sourpusses aren't from here. I would become very depressed if I lived in staid Horsham society. Ah well, the chances of ever crossing the pond again are the same as growing another arm.

    1. The US, and the Mid-West in particular, are traditionally friendly, are they not? I have always found this to be true.