How to survive January, the secular season of penitence

A discarded Christmas tree left on the streets of Battersea, London (Photo: PA)

January can be a penitential season like a compulsory Lent. We may have to give up going out for a pint (it may be too expensive when there is a looming tax bill and/or debts from over-spending at Christmas). If we’ve piled on the pounds over the festive season, we may have no choice but to stop eating cakes and chocolate if we want to fit into our regular clothes. We are not so much Sugar Plum Fairy, as Sugar Plump Fairy.

A harder trial could be bearing with our friends and peers who gripe non-stop, pointing out the people who can afford to go to the January sales while they are skint. Or the more usual complaint among singletons, that Christmas brought them down – they felt jealous of happy couples and happy young families.

Taking a leaf out of St Thérèse the Little Flower’s book, we might do well just to suffer through the January moan-fest by listening patiently. It’s tempting to remind them harshly that they are better off than they realise and that their problems, “are just so First World”. This can backfire – they may go from chatty complaints to cold silence. Listening to our friends’ grumbles is a good work that takes strength, but I think we have to take pride in being a listening ear. Lots of us have pangs of guilt when we see charities that help people who are alone, the good works done by these charities make us conscious of the good works we are not doing. In January, however, there is ample opportunity to give our remaining energies to helping those close to us feel they have someone to turn to.

I have observed a vicious cycle in January where someone might be short on money and may avoid inviting people out to coffee or joining others on a night out (they feel embarrassed saying they are hard-up) or they may turn down invitations to a dinner party because they can’t see themselves having enough dough to buy a “good” bottle of wine. Then they feel they have “no life” and the bleakness of the weather compounds a very wintry depression. I think we need to be humble and be the first one to admit that things are tight and together find ways to work out social occasions that don’t make our money worries worse. Instead of one person putting on a whole dinner party, everyone could make and bring a dish (the ingredients combined might cost the same as the posh bottle of wine we would otherwise feel under pressure to bring).

Not everyone suffers from bouts of being down during January, but may be coping with physical illnesses. The ideal saint is St André Bessette, who has interceded for countless sick people and won them extraordinary cures. In this piece by Patricia Treece, there is an account of St André coming to the aid of a father who had had to give up his work because rheumatism had taken over his joints to the extent he was not able to tie his shoelaces. After praying to St André, the man was completely cured and had no use for his crutches that had held him up when his body was swollen with rheumatism.

Praying, offering up our sufferings and doing our best to socialise may help us through, but I grant that January is still an obligatory penitential season, so the best we can do is to offer up our struggles for our personal intentions, in the hope that God will accept our offerings as sacrifices and reward us with grace. Also — here is one of my less-than-subtle evangelising tricks — but we could gently suggest to non-Catholics who are having a hard time that it is possible to offer up their trials for a special intention.