Stories of the nativity are stories of the liminal. A baby – both corporal and spirit – born of a virgin in a place that belongs ‘partly to humans and partly to humans’ – neither a ‘house nor the open air’ – and worshipped both by royal magi and lowly shepherds. As Hutton notes, this birth of a hero occurs ‘at the junction of many worlds’ (Hutton, loc 207). The uncertainty of the betwixt and the between suffuses the days of December and beyond. At midwinter, as at midsummer, the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for several days (this is the solstice – the time when the sun stands still). In the pagan Roman calendar, this period was a ‘quiet and mysterious one’ bordered by two festivals: Saturnalia and the Kalandae (Hutton, loc 241).
For the days of Advent are days of both preparation and closure. The year is dying with a new year soon to be born. This is a season that slips the net of classification: it assumes, like the liminal persona in a rite of passage, both the symbols of death and decomposition and those of growth and regeneration (Turner, 1967). The green yew that decks the ‘altar, font and arch and pew’ (Betjeman, p.41) defies the withered leaves strewn on the gravel path outside.
And so these days reflect not only a Christian mythology but a parallel tradition. Hutton argues that there is sufficient evidence from Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Welsh heritage to argue for a major pre-Christian festival ‘marking the opening of the new year, at the moment at which the sun had reached the winter solstice and its strength was being renewed’ (Hutton, loc 386). This duality – this intertwining – is seen in how, before 1038, the feast of the Nativity was starkly described in Anglo-Saxon literature as ‘midwinter’ (midne winter or middum wintra)’ (Hutton, loc 329). There was no Christmas here.
And, is it any surprise, that when we view our organisations through the kaleidoscope of these traditions that such liminality shifts, transforms and transmutes. In their study of the sacrilization of Christmas commerce, Bartunek and Do see a complex interplay between the sacred and the profane. This is not just a simple paradox which revolves around a Christian holy day and a secular occasion for commerce. Rather, the ‘paradox of Christmas is that organized commercialism has become sacred, and the religious experience of Christmas has lost a good deal of its sacred character’ (Bartunek and Do, p.803).
And, as a liminal time, is it any surprise that the organisational Christmas is marked by rite and ritual? Speaking to friends and colleagues, they revealed the Christmas work customs they enjoyed. The responses were varied. The donning of Christmas jumpers, ‘secret Santa’, home-made treats communally shared, mince pies in the meeting rooms, a seasonal quiz over lunch, directors serving lunch in the staff restaurant. Their eager emails hinted at the sense of belonging and conviviality such customs engendered. Burtunek and Do identify how Durkheim’s definition of the sacred includes the set-apart which has no connection to the supernatural or religious. Rather, it involves beliefs, rituals and duties that comprise a ‘symbolic projection of the group identity’ and provide a ‘source of social cohesion (Bartunek and Do, p.796). So, maybe, we should re-appraise these seemingly trivial customs – not trivial but sanctified by the sacred?
If we look hard enough, we see further evergreen evidence of the betwixt and between. In his study of a Christmas party at a US advertising agency, Rosen categorises the event as both a ‘party’ and an ‘organisational activity’. It is both work and not work: a ‘relatively free space in which people can and do play, but it is also a space in which ‘fun’ has been institutionalized’ (Rosen, p.468). Such parties are surely similar to the business dinners we encountered in an earlier post on restaurants: they are ‘liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930).
And, of course, the party is also a space for transgression. It integrates ‘dance, music, food, alcohol, performance, laughter, sex and talk’ where the ‘hierarchically arranged relationships of the office are to a degree stripped and levelled during and through play’. (Rosen, p.468). Like the directors serving dinner (a tradition mirrored by officers serving Christmas lunch to the ranks), the hierarchy becomes, albeit temporarily, topsy-turvy. For, as Turner observes, the liminal phases ‘invert but do not usually subvert the status quo’ (Turner, 1982, p.42). When the lunch ends, the roles reverse again; and this time for good. For Rippin, such formalised misrule is a feature of carnival and, quoting Bakhtin, once the carnival is over, the ‘normal order is quickly and completely restored’ (Rippin, p.824).
Maybe such rituals are betwixt and between time too. Their modernity conceals deeper roots: older, sometimes darker, traditions. Hutton shows how the the misrule involved in role reversal reaches back in time to the Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, the tradition of the Boy Bishop and the school custom of ‘barring out’. In an entertaining analysis of how festive headgear helps us understand contemporary organisational rituals, Rippin sees the humble paper hat – our modern manifestation of a magi’s crown – as symbolic of this power to be king for a day (Rippin, p.825). She also identifies the office Christmas party as a convergence of two further traditions: the feasting of craft guilds and the donning of disguise. The mummer – or ‘guiser’ – took advantage of their camouflage to entertain and/or extort money as they visited door to door. Their behaviour was frequently ‘lively’: at the end of December 1657, a west countryman called Frome complained that he had been beaten up on the 26th by a group who had been ‘drinking, playing cards, and fiddling all day in disguised habits’ (Hutton, loc 698). In my area of East Anglia during the 19th century, agricultural workers engaged in a winter street performance called Molly dancing.
Disguised with blackened faces and women’s clothing, they performed versions of local social dances in exchange for largesse. They could be destructive, drunk and disreputable in appearance. (Bradtke, p.199)
Is it but a step from such guising to the weaving office workers navigating from pub to pub, paper crowns, tinsel halos, Father Christmas hats and reindeer antlers jauntily – or forlornly – displayed? For Rippin, such reindeer antlers reach further back in time. They represent the ‘reintroduction of masculine, ‘natural’, unmediated nature into organizations’ (p.892). They belong to the ‘Green Man whose function might be to bring new vigour to moribund organizations’. This brings yet another liminal turn; for, as we have seen, the Green Man thrives in the margins; the corners; the places we overlook. He is also of all time and every time: our tinsel, baubles and lights mere kitsch simulacra of a face wreathed in ivy, holly, laurel and bay.
To end where we began. Both the liminal and midwinter breathe stories, so here is one I heard many years ago. A friend told of three senior consultants from his company who had travelled to the States to research new clients. As they travelled through tumbleweed states from business to business, the three consultants drove through the December night and dusty, abandoned towns: one at the wheel, one navigating, one asleep. And finally their perseverance brought success in the form of a new account. So why did such a simple tale take such deep roots in my memory? Perhaps because it is a secular re-telling of the Journey of the Magi. Three wise men (for they were, sadly, all men), royalty in their own organisation, who came from the East and endured hardship and a long, sore journey before they found a salvation (of sorts). So, just as Eliot recast a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, ancient stories are reinvented for modern times: the ending never written; forever betwixt and between.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Bartunek, J. M. and Do, B. (2011) ‘The sacralization of Christmas commerce’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 795–806.
Betjeman, J. (2006) ‘Christmas’, in Williams H. (editor) John Betjeman. Faber.
Bradtke, E. (1999), Truculent Rustics: Molly dancing in East Anglia before 1940. The Folklore Society.
Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘Journey of the Magi’, in Selected Poems: Faber, pp. 81-93.
Hutton, R. (1996), The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press.
Rippin, A. (2011) ‘Ritualized Christmas headgear or “Pass me the tinsel, mother: it’s the office party tonight’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 823–832.
Rosen, M. (1988) ‘You asked for it: Christmas at the bosses’ expense’, Journal of Management Studies, 25(5), pp. 463–480.
Sturdy, A. Schwarz, M. Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.
Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.
Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications.