We put up our Christmas tree this weekend. Time was when our children could not wait to get out the box of decorations. One year all the baubles and gewgaws were at five year olds’ height and had to be ‘adjusted’ overnight by a slightly taller fairy. Only slightly taller mind. That Christmas fairy has now been overshot by the offspring who tower above her as she wields the tinsel.
Of course now that the kids are in their 20s it is left to us to decorate the tree. We always have a real tree for the beauty and scent, plastic is not my go-to resource when it comes to festivity although I admit that tinsel is not exactly born of Mother Earth.
For many years now I have wanted to buy several trees and make a forest in our front room. I envisage us resting amongst the branches like a family of lowland gorillas, with a mince pie in one hand and a book in the other. No one else at Slavin Castle has ever shared any enthusiasm for this idea.
I liked candles until the internet informed me of the toxic terrors billowing out of the softly flickering light. I also love fairy lights. I need a twinkle or two to pretty up the dark at this time of year and frighten off the monsters.
Back in the 70s (boom) we used to go to Bury Market to purchase new or replacement baubles. My mum had a romantic heart and was struck by such small treasures as porcelain angels and, most memorably for me, a box of sugar houses.
They were in a cardboard box divided up to make a little square haven for each miniature cottage which nestled in rustly tissue paper. They were made from that flimsy blown and silvered glass. Picture postcard in style, these were not post modern fairytale buildings. Each tiny dwelling had the requisite chimney and glittered snow sparkling on a pitched roof. The windows were symmetrically placed beside the welcoming door. They looked like genoise fancies drenched in glitter.
People talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. This sort of person tends to be a militant Christian who holds that the ‘true’ Christmas is all about Jesus being the light of the world and shepherds gathered round a manger, in their way, they’d be right. Christ-mas is about that. If we’re seeking truth however, then we have to remember that this was a festival hijacked from ancient times and beliefs. Pagans were and are, more elementally inclined. Before wise men and Herod there was Yule and Saturnalia.
Yule and the winter solstice are all about lighting the darkness. To hunters and gatherers the outside world of the sun and the seasons was paramount. The sun lit the world. That’s not simply a belief system, that’s a scientific fact. We revolve around the sun. The Celts believed the sun rested for twelve days in Winter and lit Yule logs to keep away the dark and banish bad spirits. In certain quarters it is now thought that the winter solstice at Stonehenge was more significant than that at midsummer. The winter solstice marks the the turning towards the new sun and after the shortest day the light inches back.
‘True’ meaning depends on your perspective. Some may look into the manger. Others might look out through Odin’s eye, for a connection to the natural world, to mistletoe still hanging in the tree, to the pink light of a frosty dawn, to the whipping wind and the wild rain, to the hedgerows red and orange with berries, to the grey sky cloaked with cloud, and on, further, to the stars.
If you’d like the gift of a free book to read by your Christmas tree, just tell me where to send it?
I always know there’s a storm rising on the Mental Mindscape when I find myself reading three books at once. This morning it was Sherlock Holmes, The Essex Serpent and Maskerade. I drank down my fifth mug of tea and looked out of the window. It was just past seven.
December is a dark old time. I find that my Pagan leanings have helped me considerably in the management and maintenance of my Mental Mindscape as now, when the nights draw in, as they say, I think of a black velvet cloak sprinkled with stars and I light candles and I switch on LED fairy lights here and there and when the shadows are cast I watch them. When the shadow fingers clutch at me however, I go walking.
This is the one luxury afforded to the self-employed writer , that you can adjust your work schedule to accommodate a mind-saving walk. It is Prozac in stout shoe form. Walk is cheap.
Today I turned out of my house and after twenty minutes or so I was in the woods, the first of a cluster of three. I didn’t drive to a visitor centre or take a spin up any sort of dual carriageway. I didn’t have to become a Friend or Member, I just lifted the latch on the new gate and walked in. No, I was not wearing my red, riding hood. I was wearing my beloved old coat, the one my daughter calls my ‘Derelicte’ coat in honour of its venerable age, and, shall we say ‘bohohobo’ style. It’s an insult you only appreciate if you have seen ‘Zoolander’.
Green space has become slightly bronzed and golden at the moment as the last of the leaves hang like lanterns. They look as if the sunlight of the summer has been captured inside them and is burning still. On the path before me the carpet of yellow leaves is half mushed by rain and frost but still, the topmost layer glows and illuminates the half-light of this overcast day.
At the first of the woods some men are doing some work in the ditch and so I walk onwards along the field path to the next gate. I begin to wander along, not much wandering really, it is, after all, a path, but the trees close in, shutting me out of the world, and the only map I have is the one in my head. It is interesting how this wood, Biss Wood, has a different personality from the first section which is Green Lane Wood. The trees in this part are birch and clustered closer. Here there are stooks of felled bracken like giant hedgehogs. Somewhere in the trees I can hear children shouting in play. I frighten a spaniel with my Nordic walking poles. The puddles are frozen and the path turns onward.
I’m not in the country particularly. I live in Wiltshire in a small town and as I walk I can hear traffic in the near distance. Pylons charge (pun intended) through the woodland, overhead right now they are buzzing and crackling, stalking long-legged through to the new housing development. Already today I have seen a green woodpecker, a jay and a buzzard not to mention a flurry of goldfinches, a raggle taggle bunch of long tailed tits, a robin and a rabbit. There are signs of several rabbits in the scrambling brambles and so if the world ended tomorrow this is where you could hunt down your dinner.
On my return journey there are two squirrels scuttling through the trees at the fields edge. On the other edge the diggers are scrabbing up the ground for more housing. Here, the field spits me out onto the roadside and, circular walk almost done, I put my headphones back on, let Wardruna chant me back home.
There is a ‘Spatial Strategy’ document for Wiltshire. It’s a massive tome put together by people who don’t live here but who are paid to ‘visualise’ the future that is required for this region. I imagine there are documents like it all over Britain. The strategy involves more houses and business parks. We need the housing, although the inflated housing market in this area makes a bit of a mockery of the idea of ‘affordable’ homes. The business parks I can’t see the use of. There are business parks all over Wiltshire that look like medieval battle fields with their brightly coloured pennants declaring ‘TO LET’. The earth is scraped bare, trees are cut down, permanently pop-up buildings are erected, designed by people who, it appears, only think in boxes. I imagine the drawings of these buildings, penned by architects, are slightly more simplistic than the double fronted dream house masterpieces crayoned by primary school children when asked to ‘draw a house’. We should let the five year olds loose with vast quantities of Lego, we might have better housing.
Stop. The darkness has cast off its velvet cloak and reveals its tar-slick self, it is darker than the kind of darkness they have made in a laboratory and called ‘Vantablack’. It shows me a land with all the trees cut down for Health and Safety reasons, a world where paths lead only to supermarkets and car parks and greenhouse-like shopping malls.
A thought strikes, something I chanced on on the internet a while ago. The fact that we have urban foxes because they were here first. We moved in on them and they adapted accordingly. Here, in this Wiltshire landscape, I see the tunnel the fox has made through the hedge and my mind races down it.
Look around. We can build all we like. There will always be a buddleia muscling its way through a swansneck downpipe. There will be saxifrage in the guttering. Starwort and moss will carpet your path. Shut down the supermarket and the willows will push through picture windows, the tarmac cracks with couchgrass. Here, be teasels.