December is a pretty miserable month so clearly it’s a good time for a party. You could argue that January is worse – or even February, my particular pet-hate – but try putting yourself in the shoes of ancient blokes. They may not have had telescopes or the printing press or wi-fi (or chocolate!) but they did know a fair bit about the seasons, plants and harvests, and how survival depended on the sun. And although they thought it wasn’t the earth but the sun that moved, they could predict the shortest and longest days of the year with complete accuracy.
For them the two most important days of the year were the Summer and Winter Solstices. Stone circles were built to align with the setting or rising sun on one or other of these days. We all appreciate summer (when we get a decent one!) but from our very comfy position it’s difficult to grasp just how grim and dark winter was pre-electricity. The Winter Solstice was literally a turning point in the year, and no matter that there were still a couple of cold, wet, miserable months ahead, at least now the days were going to start getting longer. So it was time to celebrate! No doubt there was plenty of booze and as much food as could be spared, and probably plenty of other shenanigans, too. Who knows?
These days we focus our mid-Winter festivities on Christmas – and it doesn’t seem to matter that most people blithely ignore the religious meaning behind it. There are plenty of traditions associated with Christmas and many of them have come at us from the Victorians (and are therefore German, courtesy of Prince Alfred). But we still hang mistletoe, which the Druids would cut from the holy oak, because mistletoe was a sign of life in the barren winter. Some people burn a Yule log (or a chocolate log to represent it!) which was a custom of Norsemen and others, including the Anglo-Saxons until they converted to Christianity. The log was lit on the day of the Solstice and burnt throughout the night, to conquer darkness, banish evil spirits and bring good luck. It was also a symbol of hope that the sun would return.A walk at Winter Solstice – and the return of light!
Remnants of other old traditions – some pagan, others from earlier Christian times – are still seen today and vary according to location. In Wales we have the Plygain service (a service that takes place in the early hours of the morning on Christmas Day, apparently evolving as a 16th century Protestant response to the old Catholic Midnight Mass) and – sometimes at Christmas, sometimes New Year, sometimes mid-January as part of Wassail – the Mari Lwyd, a horse’s skull which is carried from house to house (or pub to pub…) by a group of revellers. The horse was a symbol of power and fertility in Celtic Britain, and the arrival of the Mari Lwyd at the door involves a certain amount of mock belligerence and a battle between the Mari Lwyd party and the inhabitants of the house – though the battle is in verse form and no blood is spilled! This ancient tradition almost died out during the Industrial Revolution, thanks to evangelical Chapel ministers and strict Victorian morals but now appears to be growing in popularity again- though I think the horse’s head is now made from papier maché rather than being a real skull.
One tradition that we don’t see now, thank God, are the holly beatings. This frankly horrible custom took place on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) when young men would thrash the bare arms of young women until they bled. It’s no surprise that this has died out! In fact most of our modern traditions – if that’s not an oxymoron! – are quite harmless and involve trees, carol-singing, family get-togethers, Christmas cards … and we all surely like the idea of a white Christmas (even if we don’t often get one), roaring fires and robins hopping about in the garden.A full nest for Christmas! Felt robins made by my very talented sister – see marialalic.co.uk
Our own Christmas customs at Ty Burns have evolved over the years. Before we had children Michael and I didn’t mind working through Christmas Eve to Boxing Day if necessary but of course when Lizzie was born things changed. And once we were involved with nursery and school the last quarter of the year was all about Christmas: practising for end of term concerts and the stress of cobbling together costumes for stars/angels/Disney characters (don’t ask); constantly clearing the kitchen table of glue, glitter and other card or calendar making paraphernalia; deciding where to spend The Day; what to buy for everyone (including deciding which gifts would be coming from Santa); even what to call Santa!
Katie and BFF!
Now the best thing about Christmas for me is the fact that the girls are all home and we spend a week together. We enjoy hours preparing and eating lovely food, play ridiculous games and pretend not to poke at parcels under the tree. Some of us even go out for walks.
Moving to the country has also introduced some new activities. This year when Alex arrived on Monday 21st, she was persuaded to come with us to the Nine Lessons and Carols service that my singing group were taking part in. The reward for this was that we all went straight from church to the pub, where the singing continued for another two hours.
Lizzie and Katie hired a car to drive down from London so we went to collect them the from the car-hire place on Tuesday. This was also Michael’s birthday so we invited some friends over and celebrated with an Indian take-away, followed by a delicious baked orange cheese-cake that Katie made.Katie’s baked orange cheesecake
On Christmas Eve I went to the crib service at the local church, which had advertised the fact that there would be live animals. There was one sheep. And a pretty grumpy shepherd, whose four-letter word as he struggled to unload said sheep from his truck just as I went past wasn’t what I was expecting …
He wasn’t the only one to be challenged that day though; Lizzie announced that she wanted to make baklava. Unfortunately there was no filo pastry to be had in the local shops, but undaunted by this, she decided that she would make her own.Lizzie’s baklava
Christmas Day started as usual, with stockings first. This year Michael and I got stockings too, from the girls. The gorgeous things inside made me feel slightly guilty about the things I’d put in theirs! Then we stuffed ourselves with our standard Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and Buck’s Fizz, before opening the presents proper. It was definitely time to do something virtuous so we went and got some fresh air – fresh, wet air, that is. It was raining in the way that I’m sure it only does in Wales, that grey drizzle that looks soft and harmless but manages to soak you to the skin in five minutes flat.Christmas morning walk – sheltering from the drizzle under the Llangattock redwood
One of the best things about a walk in the pouring rain – ok, the only good thing about a walk in the pouring rain – is getting home. On Christmas morning it’s particularly satisfying to make it back to a warm, dry house, get changed and settle down in the kitchen to peel vegetables…
I never really understand why people get stressed about the turkey-and-sixteen-assorted-vegetables meal, but then I don’t do it on my own. Everyone joins in, which can be slightly chaotic but makes it all the more enjoyable – especially when we get to enjoy Alex’s meringue wreath!Alex’s Christmas Wreath
The next best thing about the Christmas holidays is spending time with people we don’t get to see very often. My two sisters visited on Boxing Day and it was lovely because I don’t remember the last time we were all together. On Sunday a dozen of Lizzie’s friends turned up with (between them) five babies of ages varying from two to eighteen months, requiring a certain amount of baby-proofing to be done! Then on the last Tuesday in December long-time friends arrived for the day; the rain had stopped and the sun came out, which was pretty unbelievable, so we went for a five mile walk – though for those of us without wellingtons it was just slightly longer due to the fact that we had to detour around a particularly full stream!Our lovely girls plus lovely friends at Glanusk Park
And now it’s all done for another year…the decorations are coming down, the food’s all eaten (apart from the turkey in the freezer), there’s plenty of booze though as I’ve given up alcohol for January I can’t drink it…but cheer up! Because although it doesn’t seem that way, the days are getting longer!
Summer is coming!