The Janus Face

(c) RedJinn

The time between Christmas and New Year is in many countries formally sanctioned ‘downtime’, comprised of several days spent recovering from festive excess. Countries that celebrate Christmas tend to class this period as automatic/grace annual leave for many employees, during which movies get watched, social visits get completed, and really, not much else. Nothing much happens that anyone can ever remember. If it did, it would probably be most people’s favourite time of the year. The normal stresses and tedium of everyday life go on hold, while we sit in suspended childlike animation in front of the television.

For all its timeless ‘quality’, this in-between period is also perfect timing. Christmas, for all its benefits, can be a time of emotional anguish and stress. This aspect has not gone unnoticed of course, especially the capacity of family get-togethers and forced cohabitation to awaken dormant resentment. Although Christmas means a great deal to a lot of people, conjuring up happy childhood memories, it is also a time of gritted teeth and biting of lips. People try hard to fulfil their part in the (implicitly agreed) festive emotional ceasefire, but it doesn’t always go to plan. The drink doesn’t help either.

Christmas then, is the time when the Janus face comes into its own. The expression Janus face, derived from the god Janus of ancient Roman mythology, tends to be used in a pejorative way, referring to those who are ‘two-faced’ – deceit, dishonesty and duplicity characteristics of those who show one (false) face while hiding their (true) face. But two-facedness, rather than a negative trait, is effectively compulsory at Christmas. How else does one keep the peace? It may be a time spent with loved ones, but love is no guarantee of mutual respect and admiration, and it doesn’t take much to get the blame game off and running. So why say something to someone’s face when you can say it behind their back?

The Janus face is relevant to the Christmas period for another reason, a reason that has more to do with the original Roman interpretation. At various points in Roman mythology Janus was known as the god of beginnings and transitions, the god of doorways and gateways, even the guardian of the gates of Heaven. But Janus was also associated with having two faces, one that looked to the past while the other looked to the future (as indicated above). This two-faced quality, very different from modern notions of duplicity, acknowledges the passing of time while accepting the inevitability of change and renewal.

Commentators are right to suggest that Christmas can be a time of despair and regret as well as joy and happiness. But it may be the case that, for most people, neither of these extremes show their faces during the festive period. Just like Janus himself, Christmas leaves us caught in the middle, an emotional space that represents both the trials of the past and hopes for the future. An in-between time, the festive period, whether we like it or not, forces us to act as our own personal Janus. After all, let’s not forget that the month of January, that crucial time of beginnings, is derived from the Latin Januarius, the month of Janus.

Happy new year to one and all.

Article written by

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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