Archive for December, 2020

Why We Need Christmas

December 23, 2020

It’s been a wretched year. In the United Kingdom, even modest plans for Christmas gatherings have had to be cancelled as the virus rages in a new, more virulent form. Here on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border, the rain is hard and steady. It is merely the latest in a long line of wet, gloomy days. The sort of day when the sun never really rises and never really sets. The day just passes from greyer to less grey and back again. This of course, is not untypical of this time of year.

And yet, today has been rather a jolly one at Wharf House. We have spent it making mince pies and sausage rolls. We iced the Christmas cake. All of this to the accompaniment of Christmas carols. It is this great festival of Christmas that lifts the gloom and gets us though.

The Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia around the time of the Winter solstice. The pagan Anglo-Saxons are known to have celebrated ‘Yule’ at mid-Winter and the ancient Britons before them similarly marked this turning point of the year, from the dark, back towards the light. And well they might because if ever there is a time of year when one needs cheering up, it is now. To say the least then, Christmas is a well-timed festival.

There was a time, not so very long ago in our history when Christmas was actively suppressed. The puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries slowly worked themselves up into quite a frenzy about what they called ‘Old Christmas’. Disapproving as they did of pleasure, never mind excess, they looked with horror at the last vestiges of pre-reformation Christmas traditions, which still persisted. With the defeat of King Charles I in the Civil Wars of the 1640s, the puritans were able to impose their peculiar liturgical interpretations on their fellow countrymen. It became illegal to decorate one’s home with greenery. It was illegal to attend Church on Christmas Day. It was certainly illegal to feast, drink or generally to show any sign of festive merriness. Christmas Day was not only deemed to be a day like any other but was even made a day of compulsory fasting. It is fair to say that these ordinances were not popular. In 1647, the people of Canterbury rioted and demanded that they be able to celebrate ‘their Christmas’. Up and down the country, quietly and behind closed doors, people risked fines or worse by continuing to make merry. Fortunately for them (and for us) King Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660. As one contemporary noted,

“Now thanks to God for Charles’ return, whose absence made old Christmas mourn, for then we scarcely did it know, whether it were Christmas or no.”

So, although it may not be the Christmas we either wanted or expected this year, it is still Christmas and we wish you all a merry one!

Christmas: when we bring the outside, inside.

December 21, 2020

We are told that the tradition of bringing ever-green foliage indoors to decorate homes in preparation for the celebration of a mid-Winter festival, is a very ancient one. Whatever our pagan ancestors did or didn’t do, we do know for sure that in ‘Merry Olde England’, our pre-reformation celebration of Christmas started with the bringing of the outdoors, indoors. Homes would be brightened with holly, ivy, mistletoe and presumably whatever greenery was available in the locality. Much more recently of course, here in Britain we imported the German tradition of bringing a pine tree indoors and decorating that. Described as a ‘new’ tradition, it is actually just the revival (with a twist) of a very old one.

Here at Wharf House we collect traditional (and less traditional) Winter greenery with gusto! We have holly and ivy from the hedgerows and we enough of a smattering of different pine trees about the place, to give us a good variety of aromatic ever-greens. Neighbours with an old orchard are kind enough to furnish us with as much mistletoe as we can fit in the back of the landrover.

Then begins the job of making garlands to festoon the staircase and mantlepieces. It’s not a difficult job, with a bit of patience and a lot of wire, the garlands are easy enough to make but it is quite a time consuming one. Then we bring our creations inside and ‘deck the halls’. It is remarkable the change that these simple garlands make. It isn’t just aesthetic. There comes with the greenery an aroma of earthy-pine which is simultaneously refreshing and comforting. There is also an unmistakable change in atmosphere. The house suddenly looks and feels ready for Christmas. It is unmistakeably festive.

In Merry Olde England of course, our ancestors would have considered their ‘decorating’ complete once their homes were filled with greenery. And perhaps that ought to be enough for us too? We have the opportunity however to enhance what nature offers us with candles, lights and myriad other ‘decorations’. Our fore-Fathers had one great Christmas advantage over us however. They observed all twelve days of Christmas with unceasing celebration. Not for them the gloomy return to work on 4th January!

Winter Thoughts

December 17, 2020
Wharf House in December 2018

As I write, the rain is lashing against the window. The wind is swirling. It’s dark, gloomy and cold. All things considered, one would have to have an especially sunny disposition to regard this as one of the best days that Winter has to offer. Sadly, this is far from being an atypical day, so far this Winter at least. On the other hand, the picture above shows that rarest of Winter days in the midlands of England in this era of global warming: a day of deep (for us) snow. We do of course get cold, dry, sunny days as well, yesterday was one and it was glorious and life-affirming. Even so, at the moment the light fades here at about 4.30pm and the dawn doesn’t come up until 7.30am. These are very short days.

There are aspects of Winter which I love. There is something deeply, deeply satisfying about settling down in front of a roaring fire in the late afternoon, book in hand, cat on lap, safe in the knowledge that one is not shirking any jobs outside because it is already too dark to do anything. On a sunny, cold day, there is great beauty to be seen in a bare tree against a deep blue sky. It is the pheasant season and every Sunday our local gamekeeper brings us a brace for supper. Last but by no means least, it’s Advent and shortly it will be Christmas. We enter into Christmas with considerable enthusiasm at Wharf House. We will festoon the mantelpieces and staircase with evergreens from the orchard. As we light the fires and the rooms slowly warm, a sweet scent of pine will infuse the whole house. Ordinarily, the house would be filled with family, friends and dogs. It will just be the two of us this year but even so, we will thoroughly enjoy our country Christmas.

In the garden, one must search out beauty but it is there to be found. The ‘Garrya Elliptica’ in the kitchen courtyard looks better by the day, with long, smoky white racemes. The hellebores are just starting to come into flower. They will get better and better. Elsewhere, there are signs of the Spring to come. As early as next month, large swathes of the garden will be filled with snowdrops. A week or two later, pots of bulbs will start to perform. ‘Iris Reticulata’ will be first, followed by crocus and chionodoxa. Later still there will be daffs and tulips. All this is still to come however, for the present, the garden is mostly bare, often muddy and on a day like today, rather dispiriting.

For me then, Winter is my least favourite season. That is not to say that I dislike it. I savour its pleasures but in truth, it is for me principally a staging post to Spring. The gardener in me hopes for at least a few days of sharp, persistent frost. We know all too well the effects that our increasingly frequent mild and wet Winters have on the local slug population! A short snowy interlude would be lovely (although at a weekend please!) but hosing-down two muddy labradors every day, is a pleasure that I could cheerfully pass up and let’s face it, a garden without flowers, is like a stage without actors.

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