Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Fifteen

Day Fifteen

Evergreens

On a bright day in winter, a full grown holly tree can seem almost dazzling. Each shiny leaf reflects the light so that the entire tree seems to glitter. It’s no wonder that even without the symbolism, holly and ivy were brought inside during the Christmas festivities during the many centuries before tinsel took the place of more natural decorations. Holly and Ivy were seen as representatives of the two polarities one male, one female.

Mistletoe is a strange thing, a greenly growth amid the sleeping trees. Contrary to popular belief, it grows very rarely on the oak tree (and was therefore much prized by druids if it was found on an oak) but prefers apple trees. As a parasitic plant, it weakens the tree it uses as host, so introduce it to your orchard with caution. Linked to Norse myth, mistletoe was the instrument of death (in the form of a dart) for Baldur the Beautiful, but we associate it now (yawn) with the romantic practice of kissing under it. Traditionally you are meant to remove a single berry for each kiss, but no one ever seems to. The plant is being researched extensively for potential cancer-fighting properties; it has been used in herbal medicine for a long time, though it is actually quite toxic. Like yew (used in medicines for breast cancer) some of these mysterious evergreens contain more than just the symbolism of life and death; they may actually hold the key to them.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Fourteen

Day Fourteen

Winter Trees

Trees have a very different beauty during the winter. Stripped of leaves by now, they stand starkly naked, skeletal and dark with rain. Sometimes they acquire false leaves when flocks of birds come to roost in them, like rooks. There’s something poignant about a winter tree; it looks dead, but if you examine it closely, you’ll see that at the tip of each twig is a tightly furled bud. If you listen to a winter tree, placing your ear against the bark, you may sense it dreaming. Winter to a tree is like night is to us: a time to rest, recuperate, consolidate and dream.

The evergreens have the stage all to themselves in winter.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Thirteen

The Winter Queen

She came softly on the trailing edge

Of fevered dreams and sinking sleep,

Face a mask of opaque ice, her eyes

Blue-bright as a sunlit glacier.

Hair as soft as swan’s lost down

Filled with pearly Honesty and skeletons

Of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Her wreath was of frozen holly leaves

Dotted with berries of bloody red

And dusted with traces of white hoar frost

Like glitter on a Venetian mask.

Her clothes the rags of summer splendour

Faded by the autumn skies

And ripped to ragged ruin

By gales and snowstorms yet to come.

Around her throat withered rowan berries

And rock hard sloes dried to stone

The meagre treasures hanging still

Amid the shaking hedges here.

Her staff a shaft of blackthorn, bare

Of leaves but bearing thorns and buds

Hard and tight as clenched fists

Defiant of the clutch of cold.

Her voice was hoarse with winter storm,

Yet soft as a draught under my door,

Insistent and full of power

Commanding me to obey her words.

The creatures of the wild will need

More food than my late sister did provide

For my realm and season will persist

Past the time when buds should break.

Take my rowan beads, and hang them

Where the birds will feed

As signal that you will be their friend

Though my reign be far too long.”

I woke. Her touch upon my face

Turned skin to leaden hue like death.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twelve

Day Twelve

Birds in the garden

As winter arrives a variety of migrant birds arrive in Britain; not just the overwintering geese for whom our climate is like a spa holiday compared to their usual honking grounds, but familiar birds like blackbirds, robins and starlings, come from continental Europe and beyond to take advantage of our milder weather and our love of feeding the wild birds. Blackbirds from the continent can be recognised by their brighter yellow beaks. Murmurations of starlings coming to roost make winter evenings spectaculr events. The robins’ song is a challenge to a death match, fighting over good territory.

But it’s a simple and beautiful thing to watch visiting birds feeding on a bird table; after pairing off for breeding, goldfinches and other small birds now group together in flocks. Many will huddle together in great roosts, hidden away in your shrubbery, sharing body heat like minute, temperate penguins.

The robin has featured on British Christmas cards for a long time, but despite folklore linking the robin to Christ on the cross, the reason for their link to Christmas is more prosaic and amusing. Originally the first postal delivery men in this country wore bright red coats, and became known as Robin Redbreasts, and since greetings cards for Christmas were delivered by Robins, it soon became a jokey theme to use the birds on the cards. As a child I remember a book called The Christmas Robin about a little bird who ended up in a house and perched on the top of the tree and sang on Christmas day; the connection has now become so strong that the robin is the quintessential Christmas bird.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Eleven

Day Eleven

Getting greetings from old friends

The traditional Christmas card is a strange thing. I send fewer than I did and often send e-greetings instead, but when ones from old friends pop through the letter box or into my in-box, it gladdens by heart. We made it through another year, more or less. It’s a tiny moment of recognition that our relationship still matters, even though life has been frantic, busy, overwhelming and exhausting.

I see the words on an envelope and my heart lifts when I think, “Oh that’s So-and-so’s handwriting!”. Sometimes there’s a letter, often the round-robin newsletter, but I read with interest. I resolve, next year we’ll try and stay in touch better, and sometimes I do.

Sometimes gifts arrive as well. Because of all sorts of regulations, ones from the USA cannot be fully gift wrapped (in case customs open the parcel) so I am aware of the contents. One much beloved friend has sent me some truly beautiful Christmas ornaments over the years; tree baubles shaped like hedgehogs for example. It brings out the child in me, to open parcels with glee and anticipation. I’ve learned to have a sneaky peek at ones from that friend, because they’re usually items that enhance the home specially at Christmas, so I open those and put them out once the decorations and the tree go up.

There is something magical to realise that someone, somewhere, often continents away, has thought of you, and thought kindly, at this time of year.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Ten

Winter sunshine

The rare days in winter when the sun shines are a blessing, bringing better mood and a sense of brightness. Winter sunshine is gentle, without any real heat and feels somehow purer; I’m wary of being out in the sun at other times of the year, for I burn very quickly. But a sunny day in winter is a joy. We’ve had a mild but wet winter so far, and some parts of the UK are flooded badly. So having a few dry days of sunshine are very welcome.

There’s also something special about the way the sunlight catches on the leaves and needles of evergreen plants and trees, and a holly tree in midwinter can be almost too shiny to look at when the sun is out.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Nine

Day 9

The singing of the stars

Every evening, after feeding the cats, cuddling and feeding the guinea pigs, I step outside into the garden to see if the food put out for hedgehogs has been eaten (I don’t really mind what eats it!). For the last week, it seems the hedgehogs are all asleep. They do wake from time to time during the winter so it’s important to leave food for them even when you think they may be asleep.

But it’s become something I like to do, so I can look up at the sky for a few moments and contemplate infinity and the sheer beauty of the night sky. Over the years, on very rare occasions I have heard the stars sing. That’s the closest I can come to putting into words this experience, because it’s not music in any sense you’d usually hear. It’s a pure clear song, like being bathed in liquid light, and defied normal sensory language. I do not know what the origins of it might be (it’s not tinnitus, by the way) but it’s something that is extremely powerful when it happens. If it happens, it tends to be in remote places, far from the bustle and noise of a town, and the most common place for people to have reported experiencing it is in deserts. For me, it has been on winter nights, often when there is snow lying on the ground and the temperature is dropping fast.

I think that though it has been a rare experience, it is one that comforts me and which gives me hope that we are not alone in this universe and that I, as Vivienne, am not valueless and of no importance.