I’ve never been one for the upscaling of festivals and a blatant disregard for seasonality. No strawberries in December, no birthday weeks and definitely no Christmas all year round. The beauty in being a Celt with a passion for the ancient festivals is that there is something new to celebrate every few weeks. It brings a rhythm to life which is grounding and healthy.
January may be dark and drear but it is an opportunity to bring an end to Christmas by celebrating Hen Galan or Twelfth Night, perhaps in Tudor style or in a more homespun fashion. You may even go wassailing. I’ve only recently discovered the Holly Man of Bankside, which combines many (or all) of the traditions of this time of year. Bedecked in greenery, the main man arrives over the Millennium Bridge in London to the accompaniment of Wassailers and mummers who perform a traditional play featuring St George. After the play, cakes are given out and those who find the concealed bean and pea in their cakes are crowned King and Queen for the day; a procession then makes its way to the George Inn on Borough High Street for more dancing, mulled wine, the Kissing Wishing Tree and storytelling. What more could you want from a winter festival except for an orchard of your own, a recent snowfall and all your neighbours coming together to look forward to a good harvest later in the year?
All being well the Bankside festival should be tomorrow at 2pm. The festival is free and goes ahead whatever the weather, as festivals should. We’re not in London any more but I can definitely see the attraction. You might go if you’re in London and it’s safe to do so. In COVID times you might recreate your own festival in the garden, embrace the atavistic, bang a few pots, drink mulled cider, wave goodbye to Christmas and look forward to fruitful times ahead.
You can’t top a country Christmas. Somehow the values of the season – simple, slow living in the company of family and friends, hunkering down beside a crackling log fire, sharing hearty meals, long walks, good books and big skies are rooted in the country. Country folk are masters of upholding the family rituals of years gone by and the cost-effective creativity of homemade gifts at the expense of unrestrained commercialism.
I stumbled upon a series of programmes on catch-up – I suspect made by the Countryfile team – about Christmas in the country. It was a comforting watch in spite of the uber-styling. Nigella clad in a scarlet coat and pristine wellies walks an adorable dog through the woods then returns to her fairylight-festooned kitchen grotto. She quickly whips up chocolate and pistachio treats to be shared with impossibly attractive, jolly friends around the garden firepit as the snowflakes flutter down. My life is less styled, more homespun and mud-splattered and yet there have been a wealth of perfect country Christmas moments over the years.
Many of the pleasures of a country Christmas are in the preparations for the day itself of course: making a door wreath from foraged greenery; drying orange slices to hang on the tree or to adorn gifts; baking an enormous Christmas cake or popping a batch of mince pies in the oven to the strains of Carols from Kings; making chutneys, piccalilli, sloe gin or cherry brandy to give as presents. And whilst Christmas Day is a day for family, Christmas Eve and all the days between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night are full of delights to be had further afield. Some of my highlights over the years are documented here.
Nativity Plays – Long before The Vicar of Dibley filmed the iconic pet service and the Netflix ‘Nativity’ loop existed, we held a nativity play in the stable of a local farm. Candle lanterns, straw and a range of farm animals are a health and safety nightmare obviously. Somehow we got away with it. This year’s nativity took place on the village green in the drizzle using the wooden shelter as a stable. Many children came dressed in their nativity costumes, joined in and it was all the better for it.
Carol singing – singing features significantly in any country Christmas. Whether standing around the tree on the green or wandering around the village with an accordion and charity buckets it’s good for the soul. A bag of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges to share is optional.
Candlelit Crib services and Midnight Mass – There’s something quite magical about little children singing Away in a Manger in candlelight on Christmas Eve, even if you are praying not for peace on earth but that your toddler doesn’t set light to the hair of the child next to them with their taper (hands protected by a cardboard square a few inches beneath the flame). As I recall this is the reason we have a large collection of sealed candle lanterns around the house. Gradually during the service the crib figures are set in place. I remember fondly the year when we were asked to deliver the baby Jesus to the crib as the parents of the youngest member of the regular church congregation. It proved a far more significant moment than many people would have realised as our infant son was much-longed for and arrived after a series of miscarriages that everyone we knew were completely oblivious to. Midnight Communion services also hold a special place in my heart. Heading to church after an evening of Monopoly to meet up with friends and neighbours and welcome in Christmas Day; then home to see if Santa has remembered where the contents of the childrens’ stockings have been secreted.
Boxing Day Boules – Whilst a sea swim is underway in my native Pembrokeshire, in our part of Wiltshire the village turns out for the annual boules tournament on the green. By 10am on 26th the green is marked up and cordoned off and teams of four challenge each other in a knock-out tournament. Gluwein flows, university students at home for the holidays reconnect, grandparents pass on tips to their grandchildren and teenagers take on their parents. Children are keen to show off new toys, bikes and scooters and then the whole village repairs to the pub for sausage rolls and a leisurely pint. Occasionally this lasts all day and includes choruses of Alouette led by one of the more merry village elders, perched atop a bar stool.
Morris men and mummers plays – the village morris men (and women) are always keen for an opportunity to jangle their bells energetically around the village on Boxing Day and work off the excesses of Christmas Day. There’s plenty of hospitality for them too from villagers who appear out of their houses with plates of Christmas cake, cheese straws and the odd nip of whisky to ward off the cold. This year there was a traditional mummers play too. I remember at least two village pantomimes after Christmas too and a vivid emerald green costume in which I created the role of Fairy Liquid. Happy Days!
New Year’s Eve safari suppers – a particular highlight for a number of years was the village safari supper on New Year’s Eve. Couples agreed to take on a starter, main course or pudding for six (four and themselves) and someone with more tact and organisational skill than me managed to achieve the impossible. The Russian roulette of not knowing either what you would be eating, where or with whom until minutes before was the perfect way to see out the old year and welcome in the new. Having spent the evening visiting a different house for each course by midnight we were all upstairs in the pub comparing culinary experiences, singing Auld Lang Syne and hugging each other. Of course there was the year when our main course hosts presented the first vegetarian option they’d ever cooked ( fish pie – no kidding!) with great ceremony and my co – conspirators produced Oscar-winning performances to keep our hosts out of the way whilst I fed my portion to the cat and the magical millennium eve when we’d just found out I was pregnant and couldn’t let on.
However you’ve spent Christmas this year, I hope you’ve been able to reflect on happy memories of years gone by and made a few new ones. This is our first year without any of our parents being alive and with three grown-up children in the house. Time moves on, ready for them to embrace some Christmas traditions of their own and what better place than the country?
From time to time I miss the buzz of Christmas in the city……ice skating at Somerset House, a wander through the Christmas market in Trafalgar Square, authentic pizza and gelato in a busy eatery in Covent Garden, the fair on the South bank, shopping (for books, smart boots and the odd sparkly party dress) and lights.
Lots of lights.
A few years ago we all took a trip on the London Eye between Christmas and New Year on a crisp, sunny day. This year the weather was grey but the lights were just as bright.
A Boxing Day walk is traditional; in more recent years around Stourhead. It’s here that we’ve walked off the Christmas excess of roast potatoes, our own bodyweight in cheese and, this year, a raspberry roulade that would have fed the entire avenue. We’ve been there on crisp, cold days with grandparents – now achingly no longer with us; with friends when the snow was melting; on grey days, just the five of us when clouds hung low and gloomy. We’ve completed reindeer trails with our three lively pre-school explorers and imbibed gluwein or hot chocolate beside the Christmas tree in the thatched cottage with them transformed into teenagers who raced ahead together, chatting or sporting headphones. There are dozens of happy memories woven into the fabric of the place. Rarely though has it felt less Christmassy than today.
Perhaps the Christmas spirit had been packed away carefully by the National Trust staff until the after-dark Christmas light event. It’s hard to sparkle all day long when the weather makes it feel more like October. Three cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ (I have one in the garden) put on a brave show near the temple of Apollo however, as an aide memoire that we have just celebrated the Winter solstice and there was room for a mince pie or two in the cafe. Finding it difficult not to roll my eyes at the conversations taking place around us about how keen people were to dismantle Christmas “now that it’s over” I popped into the shop to pay for the last cornus in the plant section and carry it home. A celebration of Christmas 2021- still at its height in our house – and of those yet to come.
Driving back home in the late afternoon, the mists were beginning to weave and curl through ancient forest on either side of us, caressing the gnarled bark of ancient oak and ash. There’s still midwinter magic to be savoured if you open your eyes and your hearts to it.
Homemade presents are the best. I was all set to make a batch of chilli jam for friends when I stumbled upon a batch of marmalade I’d made (and forgotten to label) at the back of the pantry.
Fifteen minutes with the pinking shears and an offcut of starry material and these jars of jewelled loveliness are ready for delivery around the village tomorrow. We might even combine it with a jaunt around the advent windows and Carol singing with mulled wine and mince pies around the firepit at the outdoor village eatery.
I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.
There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.
The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.
Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.
We’ve never subscribed to an uber-commercialised Valentine’s Day and this year is no different. Lockdown Valentine’s is business as usual – a bunch of daffs in the kitchen, a couple of non-specific “not Valentine’s Day” cards, the offer to make a coffee or rub tired feet.
After six weeks of busy online and in-school teaching I decided to treat myself to a bit of self-care today. Solitude, a takeaway coffee and a quiet stroll in the rain round one of my favourite local places and the promise of an hour in the garden when the weather improves, tidying up in time for spring sowing. I have some more hellebores to pop in the ground along with some grasses and three Patty’s Plum poppies – one for each child.
Later today a catch up with said children, a log fire, a good book, a slice of home-baked blood orange drizzle cake and a rugby match on the TV is also on the cards.
“Born from winter dreaming, life stirs and the first tender shoots emerge from the earth. As the wheel turns, we feel the promise of spring and the dawning of a new beginning”
There’s a smattering of snow on the garden, the snowdrops have been out for weeks and we have come to the end of what feels like the longest January ever. I had an emotional wobble on Thursday, having spent all day at an online moderation meeting for sixth form EPQ projects when the rest of the school were off timetable, encouraged to take time away from online study. It couldn’t be helped but nearly broke me. But everything happens for a reason and it has forced me to realise how little time I have spent since Christmas socialising, reading, walking, gardening, cooking and doing all those activities that make me feel like me. I need to recalibrate and fill the pot from which I pour to others during the week.
Today is the feast of St Brigit and the ancient festival of Imbolc, a fire festival. Traditionally it was a time when stores would be running low. No change there as we have just exhausted our supply of fire wood and have another booked to arrive tomorrow. Fire rituals at Imbolc ensured a good growing season and celebrated having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter. Ritual fire was kindled to ensure a good growing season and to increase the power of the returning sun. Families would celebrate having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter.
That seems especially poignant this year as we begin to emerge from the effects of the pandemic. We’re not there yet but there are signs that, if managed carefully, we should not slip back into the dark days of winter. To celebrate quietly we had a catch up with the boys who are in lockdown at university, lit the fire last night and watched ‘The Dig’ on Netflix, a beautiful bittersweet film with some lovely understated performances. Life affirming but not shying away from the fact that living has its fair share of personal difficulties.
Imbolc blessings to you all. May the sunshine return to your homes and gardens over the coming months.
We Celts are never shy in celebrating – more often than not it involves music, dancing, alcohol and fire. Even in this strangest of years we’ll be welcoming in the New Year with a celebration around the fire. Of course it will be a quiet affair beside our own hearth rather than on top of a hill where a community gathers beside a hastily constructed beacon blazing ostentatiously. How I long for those atavistic days! Having to scale down Bonfire Night affected me more than almost every other festival this year. Truly!
Fire stirs something deep within me and never fails to soothe. Not that I’m a pyromaniac you understand but I’ve spent hours tending bonfires after dusk on the allotment, love the daily routine of laying a fire in the hearth and am fanatical about the log pile. I adore a firework display but my passion is for the accompanying bonfire. One day I’m determined to do a spot of firewalking.
To celebrate the end of 2020 I’ve splurged on a cornus for our cottage garden. Cornus ‘midwinter fire’. It’s a beauty and will go some way to assuage the lack of fire celebrations this year. Whenever I look out of the kitchen window it will remind me of 2020 – the craziness, the changes, the interruptions and the sheer joy of living in the moment.