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I saw three swimmers go swimming by On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day; I saw three swimmers go swimming by On Christmas Day in the morning.

Pray, wither swam those swimmers three, On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;

Pray, wither swam those swimmers three On Christmas Day in the morning.

O they swam on to Port Meadow, On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day; O they swam on to Port Meadow, On Christmas Day in the morning.

I didn’t really. Last year it didn’t happen; this year I am hopeful. Two years ago it was magical – swimming on Port Meadow on Christmas Day that is. The meadow was in flood, the sun was shining. Swimming in a set place on a set day is a bit ritualistic, and swimming in a set place on Christmas Day must be close to ritual. This solstice week I have been distracted by Radio 3’s ‘The Essay’ series, which is on the ‘Meaning of Ritual’. Five talks in all, given by non-fiction writer, journalist and novelist Madeleine Bunting. What caught my attention was the second talk on ‘Shaping Time’. I have a great interest in time, in all its forms. Last month I went to the Beano exhibition at Somerset House in London, and was persuaded by an attendant to take a small placard, one of many being made with care by a small studio of Beano fans, run by artist Peter Liversidge. I chose the one which says ‘More Time’. I got it home, having displayed it on London Christmas shopping streets to the confusion of many, and it stands in my office now, a symbol of my quest now, in my late sixties, against time, or at the very least to use it well. ‘More Time’ – impossible, but a great aspiration. ‘More Time’ especially after 21 months of pandemic having taken time from everyone. So time sits at the front of my mind as well as on the placard in my work-place, a constant reminder to use it well.

Madeleine Bunting ignited my interest on Tuesday night (which also happened to be the longest of the year, the winter solstice) with the second of the talks, as she gave her take on ritual, the church, and – pond swimming. ‘How is she going to make this one work?’ I wondered. Curious, I listened on.

She is a masterful speaker of course, and I wondered why I had never paid attention to her talks before – she has done several series of five for The Essay. This episode was on ‘The Meaning of Ritual’. She made this unlikely combination of things - ritual, church, swimming, this unlikely set of characters around a pub table - speak to each other. Madeleine Bunting’s writing is well-known and I am not going to repeat what you can easily find on the web. What is less well-known is her passion for ritual pond swimming. Which pond? She lives in Hackney; there’s the clue. And how is it ritual? This is what the BBC says about her take on ritual:

“One of the important functions of religious ritual used to be to create a cycle of special days and times of year. The Christian liturgical year marked times of work and rest, punctuated the changing of the seasons and placed the individual in a wider chronological context. With the decline of religious practice, the writer Madeleine Bunting argues, that structure is gone. So where does that leave people like herself, who grew up a Catholic but turned away from the faith? Madeleine explores new rituals that have taken the place of Sunday worship: in her own case, pond swimming”.

In short, Madeleine Bunting gave away Catholicism, but missed the community it gave her. She sought it elsewhere, most convincingly with pond swimming. I assume that she has been exposed to at least a little of the ritual of Catholicism, and she might well have been missing it, if only the aesthetics of it. She might well have sought community elsewhere, now a non-practicing catholic but practicing pond swimmer. Her ritual swimming takes place, like church, every Sunday morning. It is easy to see the parallel between the church congregation and the swimming congregation, her Pond Sisters. For her, the Sunday swim is like Sunday Mass, in that both offer a moment in the week when she is forced to stop (especially so with winter swimming), to become immersed in a world different to the day-to-day. In the murky water, with the wind blowing through the trees and across the water, entry into the pond is for her like the ritual of baptism with its promise of renewal and regeneration every Sunday.

But is it a ritual? I feel that going to church on Sunday, or on Christmas Day in the Morning is a ritual, showing reverence for a deity. Swimming though – is it not more of a habit? In the talk, Bunting mentions something that a friend of hers said – that rituals can be habits and vice versa. She disagrees with this, and this is why. Ritual is consciously-performed and requires full attention, while a habit can be performed on autopilot, allowing a freeing up of attention for something else. Ritual requires meaning, and clearly she finds meaning in pond swimming. Here, I’m with her friend.

I don’t do swimming the way Madeleine Bunting does, even though the practice means a great deal to me. For me, mid-week, in this December week of shortest light, before sun-rise, swimming is a habit, done on autopilot, almost before waking up, unthinking that the water temperature has gone Baltic, sub-five degrees Celsius. Maybe I need the water every day in the way that others need church every day, and therein the comparison with church might still be valid. But I’m still struggling with the idea. For me, Catholicism offers more than a mindful moment (although Mass certainly offers mindfulness aplenty). I like the deeper meaning, some symbolism, the two thousand year river of religion flowing steady as the Thames at Port Meadow. I like the holy smoke and singing at the Oxford Oratory on Christmas Day in the Morning – put all of this together and I have no problem of seeing Catholic Mass as ritual.

But turning this over a little more in my mind – in her talk, Madeleine Bunting mentions the comfort and solice that swimming has brought her and her Pond Sisters across the pandemic. The regular swimming commitment of the Pond Sisters – same time, same place, every Sunday, repetition and familiarity of routine – has helped pull people through these difficult times of uncertainty, disease and death. This is an echo of what many of my swimming friends have been saying now for over a year.

Beyond mindfulness and disrupting time, how else does this ritual, if it is one, help people in the pandemic? I know that archaeologist Evangelos Kyriakidis frames ritual as a routine activity that helps group belonging, a form of social glue. He sees it as especially so if the practice of this routine looks irrational or illogical to an outsider. This loops around – for an insider, knowing that a ritual looks crazy or strange to an outsider gives an extra layer to the social glue. This sense of ritual and performance, of being in the moment, of disrupting time, of everyday life, with swimming, even if only briefly, I have witnessed repeatedly across the pandemic. I have said repeatedly too, to friends - winter swimming initiates - that swimming through the pandemic winter of 2020-21 has been both irrational and the sanest thing to do, when we have been able to swim. Last winter was a time when many people became initiates to winter swimming. In previous generations many people turned to religion during epidemics and pandemics, to the church, to find meaning and to disrupt time. When the churches were closed during the pandemic, rivers, lakes and oceans became places for ritual disruption of time, places to practice irrational sanity.

Right now, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) is making alphabet soup – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. Now Omicron, the latest variant of importance putting the brake again on everyday life. The less interesting SARS-CoV-2 relatives Epsilon through Xi have appeared, been named, classified and deemed of interest but not of importance, and now were are at the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet, Omicron, and the biggest disruptor of time at the moment. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz sees ritual as something that actively shapes a social order and imposes meaning on disordered experience. Madeleine Bunting's ritual swimming is about taking time from disorder. Ritual swimming during the pandemic might well be more than that – about shaping social order (look at the outcry just recently from swimmers about sewage in UK waters) and imposing meaning on disorder. On Christmas Day 2021 then – a swim, or church? For me it is both - bring on the ritual! Swim safe, swim sane, whether you believe swimming to be ritual or not. And a Happy Christmas.

Learn more about Madeleine Buntings work (but not her swimming) here -

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