Sunday, 15 December 2019

In the Bleak Midwinter

As the shortest day of this year approaches (22 December) the temperature has plummeted. The daytime high here has been just three degrees recently, which makes it below zero when you factor in the wind-chill. With the land in the grip of deathly cold, it is entirely appropriate that the midwinter festival (whatever version of it you choose to celebrate) should focus on symbols of life and light: the bringing in to the house of evergreen plants, the building of fires, the lighting of candles and feasting with family and friends.

We have brought in a small Nordmann Fir; it is alive in a pot and sits in the centre of the lounge table, surrounded by candles and sprigs of red-berried holly (which I cut from the tree in the garden before the mistle thrushes came to eat them; they took the rest of the berries a couple of weeks ago). We have brought down the boxes of decorations from the loft and are putting up tinsel, bells and pine cones, along with plenty of red and sparkly fabrics. We have already accumulated plenty of special foods to eat.

I’ve begun to write Christmas cards and have sent some to cousins in the Antipodes, who swelter amidst bushfires and volcanic eruptions. Each year I marvel at the well organised people who manage to do this in November, as witnessed by the cards that begin to arrive from the start of December. I have only just finished buying all of my Christmas presents. I’ll get round to wrapping and sending them soon. But we’ve just received one important present (from the insurance company); T’s car has been fully repaired. With freshly painted body panels, it looks shining new.

I don’t go cycling when the temperature is below 4 degrees C. The chill is too great and there is a risk of frosty patches where you could easily come a cropper. Instead I go for country walks in forest parks, such as Castlewellan or Tolleymore. I haven’t yet tested myself with a mountain walk in the Mournes. With strong lungs and heart, I can manage the ascending fine but the long descents put great strain on the poor old knees. Thirty years ago, I would have thought nothing of running to the top of a mountain with a rucksack on and bounding back down again. Perhaps that is how I got my sore knees. As I won’t get new knees for Christmas, I will have to stick to cycling and low-level walking for the time being.

Our semi-feral cat, Squirrel, aka Ginger Dog, who normally lives on our back garden, no longer sleeps in the old dog kennel, which I filled with straw, but at dusk goes to the local farm and its barn which is heated by cattle. We think that all the other feral cats in the area do so too and that this frequently leads to fights. Our cat often arrives with a scarred face and bloodied ears. We feed him every day in the back porch and he now regularly comes in to the house to rest in the warm.

The carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and was set to music by Gustav Holst. I always enjoyed singing it with the choir. In whatever way you celebrate the midwinter festival, may I wish you good cheer, peace and well-being. It’s good to know that from 23 December the days start to get longer and the warmth will begin its return to the land.


  1. Thanks Paul. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the midwinter festival. We had our final rehearsal today. Hope to see you at the concert tomorrow! I’m still cycling gingerly over the frosty ground. It’s safe enough on the towpath and I’m lucky enough to live very close to it! Hope you both have a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year!

  2. Thank you Paul. I hope to be at the concert. Take it easy on the towpath in the frost. All the very best to you and yours. Paul