'Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter’
From the poem by Christina Rossetti
After our cold snap reminder that it is indeed winter, the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem stayed in my mind and captured a stillness and melancholic element that often prevails at this time of the year.
Even though we are truly entering the festive season it can sometimes feel difficult to live up to the expectations thrust at us by others and particularly the media in all its formats.
We find ourselves nearly at year end having journeyed together through the ever changing seasons and we enter a time of gift giving, joining with others in festive activities and following our own family traditions.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere it is the winter solstice, when the dark half of the year cedes to the light half and although it takes some time to notice it, gradually day by day we will have a little more light. For many the knowledge that we are moving away from the dark days of winter gives a mental boost and the winter solstice becomes a positive time but for many the knowledge of many more months of winter darkness and cold feels almost unbearable. I love the poem Dust of Snow by Robert Frost which really demonstrates how experiencing nature first hand and celebrating the small things can really help at this time.
‘The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.’
Winter feels a time to do things a little more slowly and to follow nature’s example as she gently slumbers. It can be difficult to live in tune with her because of our never resting 24 hour connected society and now we have the added anxiety this year of people not being able to afford to keep warm this winter as well as having the underlying knowledge of what our energy consumption does to our planet. In a time where winter has been weaponised in a war that seems a long way from us we see directly the powerful impact nature’s seasons still have on us and that we are beholden to what she brings. Without all our utilities her winter grip can be deadly and is a cold reminder of our vulnerability.
‘When she’s on her best behaviour
Don’t be tempted by her favours
Never turn you back on Mother Earth’
An extract from the lyrics of Never Turn you Back on Mother Earth by Sparks
The harshness of winter, is something our ancestors would have experienced keenly and the midwinter celebrations came out of the very time when people had the worry of not having enough heating and food together with a fear of winter illness and mortality. Whilst the intention behind marking this time of the year is unknown perhaps it was as an acknowledgment to nature gods asking them for a gentle winter or a positive act of celebration when things seemed bleak. Whatever the reason it was deemed important enough for marking this time of the year by those of our past. Quite how long people have celebrated solstice or midwinter in this country is not really known. Much is alluded to but there is little fact. But over 5000 years ago Stone Age farmers built Newgrange passage tomb that is aligned with the sun on the mornings during the solstice period that creates a shaft of light that illuminates a spiral motif on the back stone slab in the chamber. Stonehenge too is believed to have been ‘designed’ around the celestial sky of the winter solstice and many more ancient sites may lay claim to having been built for this time of the year when our sun, even at its weakest, can provide awe.
Certainly the Anglo Saxons were wassailing in winter, rooted in an older pagan magic, singing, feasting and merriment took place as they encouraged nature to favour a good harvest in the coming year. Winter was the time of no farming, little trading and little work and a generally miserable time. What better way to raise the spirits than to make merry wassailing. The ‘rebirth of the sun’ was welcomed as light was literally coming back into people’s lives. It is no coincidence that this time was chosen by the Christian church to celebrate ‘the birth of the son of God’ and so traditions and beliefs gradually mixed together. We have this time where we have Yuletide celebrations that encompass a need to mark midwinter and bring light and hope into our lives no matter what our religious beliefs are.
For us personally marking these significant times in our year and acknowledging the seasons is about connecting with Nature and spending time with her. It is often the smallest things that give the greatest joy, such as seeing the first frosts glistening on leaves, the gossamer threads creating glistening baubles threaded between hedgerow, the bright yellow crab apples glowing as if golden as a ray of sun penetrates the leaden sky, the red berries of holly and rose hips colouring the monochrome winter, winter migrant birds feasting on orchard windfalls and most wonderful of all looking at the now bare trees lit up by twinkling ‘fairy-light’ stars that seem to dance between their branches. Each year they bring ‘child-like’ joy and wonder. I don’t think we are alone, as social media posts became full of images of snowy and frosty landscapes. These seasonal decorations of nature, that we try to emulate in our homes with often tacky decorations, is nature herself celebrating. Sometimes we need do nothing more than look out of our window, take a step through the door, a walk up the street or to sit on a bench- for just a few moments- to give ourselves the best present of all. There is a magick at this time of the year.
The folklore at this time of the year is all about magick; of animals being able to talk, faeries hiding amongst the greenery we bring into our homes, of bonfires reminding our sun to return, a gift bearing being travelling the world and visiting every child, of fortune telling through parlour games and finding charms in our Christmas pudding, of the Yule Log being kept alive throughout the twelve days of Christmas for a good year ahead, of scaring mischievous spirits from our orchards the list goes on.
We celebrate the seasonal evergreen plants remaining alive when all other plants have died back in old carols such as one of our favourites ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ both of which provide a wealth of their own folklore .
‘The rising of the sun and the running of the deer’ a line from this carol also connects us to the rebirth of the solstice sun.
Mistletoe grows in the canopy of trees, with no roots to link it to the earth, seemingly growing between the heavens and the earth which must have added to its mysterious and magickal properties.
Yuletide gives us both dark and light in our lives, it makes us reflect on the year that has passed and look towards the future, we remember those we have lost and give thanks for those around us. We hope you can have the time to let the seasons magick and it’s light enter your life.
Finally we would like to thank you for your support once again as we have travelled together keeping alive the old ways and celebrating the year and we look forward to taking our first steps with you all into 2023.