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.