Walking home from a hospital appointment yesterday, I was struck by these trees in a local neighbourhood park. Almost leaning into the wintery blue skies as if reaching for the hazy sunlight, it’s just possible to see a hint of new growth on their bare branches.
Maybe spring is on its way in London…
After the recent good news about the Syon Lane Community Allotment, I visited again on a cold December Sunday afternoon. With no leaves on the trees and very little growing, the place looked stark and wintery – so I grabbed a few photographs before the light faded…
After a strangely warm autumn, winter is seriously kicking in now, with snow and winds of 100mph and more in some parts of the UK during the last week – and this stormy weather looks set to continue. It’s getting bitingly cold for us humans, but can you imagine what this weather is like for wildlife; especially for the birds in your garden?
Birds can really suffer in such severely cold conditions, particularly young adults and the old or sick. They all need food with a high fat content to help them stay warm in their roosts during the cold winter nights, and if they can’t find enough suitable wild food, they simply won’t survive.
Which is where you come in. As the colder weather begins to bite, putting some food out for the birds in your garden could help them get through the icy winter by supplementing their meagre wild diet at this time of the year – and hopefully give them a better chance of breeding come next spring.
Feeding the birds in your garden (or even on your balcony) is also an immensely rewarding process. It’s fascinating to watch as various types of birds visit your feeder or bird table – in my mum’s small suburban back garden, for example, just one bird feeder brings in more than half a dozen different species, including a very cheeky, very territorial robin who acts like he owns the place!
This week, we’ve had a few beautiful, glorious sunny days in this corner of west London. In fact, it has been so lovely at times that you might have been forgiven for thinking that spring had finally arrived to relieve this seemingly never-ending and freezing cold northern hemisphere winter we’ve been shivering through. But you’d be wrong.
Despite the fact that spring actually officially begins this coming weekend with the vernal equinox, there appears to be little sign of it in the nation’s parks and gardens yet. I’ve seen plenty of pretty purple crocuses and a few cheerful yellow daffodils in neighbouring gardens, but even the usually early flowering magnolia trees in my area are only just beginning to bud, and most of the other local trees appear to be as bare as they were in January.
The situation seems to be the same across the country, with the Woodland Trust recently estimating that signs of the British spring are anything up to a month late in emerging this year – and they’d know, they have records tracking the start of spring that date back to the 1600s.
So, who is he, this mysterious man in red? And why does he do what he does? At any other time of the year these days, a fat jolly bearded stranger (with several known aliases) landing on your roof and sliding down your chimney would result in a slap on the wrist from the Civil Aviation Authority, and a breaking and entering charge for the bearded one at the very least (if not an ASBO).
And, with cries of ‘animal cruelty’ ringing in his furry ears, poor Rudolph would probably be sent packing to a reindeer sanctuary somewhere in Scotland, and the sleigh would end up clamped and impounded by over-zealous traffic wardens. But before the nightmare of this horribly politically correct eventuality really does come to pass (and because I wouldn’t want any of you to wake up on Friday morning to an empty stocking), let’s find out exactly what’s going on here…
Santa Claus as we know him today is actually an amalgam of a number of different figures and archetypes, some real, some legendary. The first of these is probably the most important of all in the development of the Santa myth…
The 4th century saint
The first of the origins of the Santa legend can be found in a rather unexpected place. Not in the ancient nomadic tribes of Lapland or the North Pole, as we might expect, but in 4th century Turkey with the part-real/part-mythic St Nicholas. Like an increasing number of people during this early period in the development of the Christian church, Nicholas was a deeply religious man. In fact, the real Nicholas was a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. He was bishop of Myra, which is now in Turkey but was then part of Byzantine Anatolia, a position which meant he had a certain amount of power and influence.
Today is the shortest day of the year. As I write this, it is just gone three in the afternoon and there is already a hint of dusk about the sky. Within an hour or so, night will have fallen, and the Christmas celebrations will soon be one day nearer. But today is a celebration too – an ancient midwinter festival that has been celebrated in Britain for millennia, long before Christianity (or even the Romans) arrived on these isles. Today is also the Winter Solstice.
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), which expresses the idea perfectly as the sun appears not to move on the horizon. In astronomical terms, the Solstice marks the shortest day – that is, when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky because the tilt of the earth has moved our hemisphere furthest away from the warmth and power of the sun. This is the last day before the winter nights begin to shorten and the hours of daylight start to increase again.
To us modern folk, the reversal of the shortest day means little more than mild relief that we won’t have to get up in the dark of the morning for very much longer, but to our ancient ancestors it was far, far more important than that. Prior to everyone owning diaries and calendars which neatly divide the months and seasons by date, astronomical events, such as the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon at different times of the year guided the existence of our ancestors, controlling when they sowed their seeds or took their animals to be mated, for example. The sun, in particular, was very important to this process, which (partially) explains why the Solstice has long been celebrated as its return and rebirth.
It’s been snowing in London today and there has been much talk of a white Christmas as a result, all of which prompted me to dig out some stuff I wrote about snow at Christmas and extreme winter weather round about this time last year (you can see the original posts here and here) and repost them on Another Kind Of Mind. The cold snap is going to continue, so make sure you wrap up warm now, and stay away from the yellow snow…
In the UK, a white Christmas is not as common an occurrance as you might think, mainly because December is early in the season for snow in most parts of Britain (snow is more common in January). And determining what exactly constitutes a white Christmas is a matter of debate.
For most people, when they think of a white Christmas they imagine precisely that – snow falling (and settling) on Christmas Day in large amounts. However, particularly for the purpose of placing bets on the matter, a white Christmas can be as insignificant-sounding as a single snowflake being observed falling during the twenty-four hours of 25th December. According to the Met Office website, the last Christmas to see conditions much like the former was 2004, when snow covered much of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, north-east and the far south-west of England.
That may have been cold, but count yourself lucky that you weren’t alive during the three hundred years between 1550 and 1850 when an unlucky Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. Snow at Christmas was much more common during that period and its association with the season was cemented by the descriptions of festive snow in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol (Dickens, like any good Englishman should, had a strong, scientific interest in the weather).
December has only just arrived, and London is already decked out in all her finery for Christmas. The famous and gaudy Christmas lights of Oxford Street and Regent’s Street have been on for a couple of weeks now (personally, I wasn’t impressed), and the shops have been full of Christmassy stuff since the middle of October at least.
Of course, that’s assuming you can wade your way through the stressed-out throngs of Christmas shoppers who are already filling the shopping streets and malls of the city.
But there are some things about Christmas time in London that I do like. I’m grumpy about Christmas, but I’m also a bit sentimental when it comes to certain seasonal things. I like walking through the cold streets after dark, all wrapped up warm, and looking at Christmas trees lit up and twinkling in people’s windows as I pass.
I like carol services, despite not being religious in the slightest. I like the Christmas lights on the South Bank, and driving down the Great West Road to look at the numerous Christmas trees along its length. I like walking in Richmond Park on a frosty morning.
And I like the idea of the outdoor skating rinks that seem to sprout like mushrooms at historical sites all over the city. These days, you can go skating at Kew Gardens, or Hampton Court Palace, or even at the Natural History Museum, where this photo was taken.
I love the contrast between the wintery sky and both the imposing bulk of the museum and the gaily-lit merry-go-round, it neatly defines the duel nature of the season. Winter is a cold and dark time which hangs heavy on us all, but that is offset by the light and warmth of whichever midwinter festival you celebrate, because they all serve that same purpose.
There has been a distinct hint of winter in the London air these last few days. The days are visibly getting shorter, and the temperature is dropping rapidly. It’s the beginning of December already, and we’re only a matter of weeks from the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. Christmas is less than a month away now, with all the chilly, frosty air and hoped-for snow all that entails. But the modern British winter is actually much milder than it has been in previous centuries, and that’s only partly due to global warming.
Human beings have certainly made one almighty mess of the Earth’s environment, which has had an inevitable knock-on effect on our delicate climate system – the very fact that the next week’s Copenhagen climate summit is happening at all is ample testimony to this. But winter temperatures really were colder in the past, and not just in Britain. Between about 1300 and 1870, Europe and North America found themselves in the grip of what became known as the Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age meant that, prior to 1870, winter temperatures were significantly lower and harsher than in the 20th and 21st centuries, and there is still much academic and scientific debate as to why. Some scientists argue that this cooling effect was the result of sunspot activity, others that it was due to the effects of volcanic activity or an instability in atmospheric pressure, still others that it came about after the demographic changes of the Black Death caused decreased agriculture and increased reforestation. Consensus on this one may take some time.
Whatever the cause, things did get seriously frosty for a while, an eventuality that had a huge impact on everyone in Britain, particularly (as ever) the poorer members of society – and, strange as it may seem, this five century-long cold snap is still playing a cultural role in modern British life. In fact, it was some of these early 19th century Little Ice Age winters, in particular, that – via the medium of one Charles Dickens – created the enduring cultural idea that a festive white Christmas was the norm (it isn’t – it is actually more likely to snow in January than at Christmas time in Britain).