Winter is a time of darkness for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere. I know some people find this hard. You go to work in the dark you come home in the dark and in between is a backdrop of grey murk.
Like many things in life you need to embrace the winter dark for what it is, a time to withdraw inside and sort out your housekeeping. This can be a chance to get on with all those indoor projects that are impossible to do when the sun is shining. A chance to enjoy the delights of reading a book by the fire with a glass of cherry brandy or some internal quest to sort out your inner dirty laundry and make the new year a fresh start.
The dark is a blessing but on the winter solstice it is also a joy to turn the corner of the shortest day and welcome back the sun.
This year my traditional solstice walk went from the beautiful village of Chilham near Canterbury in Kent up to the downs where mist hung in the valleys before descending to Godmersham Park, once owned by Jane Austin’s brother and which was the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice.
We then headed up again to Blue Downs, through yew groves and along holloways before descending back to Juliberrie Downs and visiting the long barrow, now almost lost in the corner of a field of cabbages.
The long barrow is very long indeed, 144 feet to be precise but is now almost covered in bramble. Inside a stone hand axe had been deposited and later Roman burials took place there along with the deposit of a hoard of coins. Legend tells that it is the burial place of either a giant or a whole army and its horses.
Today the spot was empty and the sun set directly in front of us as we welcomed back the light, called for peace to the four directions. (In my case not very loudly as I had lost my voice.) Offered bread and mead and sacrificed something we wanted to leave behind in the old year which we wrote on pieces of paper and burnt and then hung on a nearby beech tree a hope for the new year written on a strip of cloth.
This is a rather ad hoc solstice ceremony but as the sun sets on the grave of a prehistoric ancestor it is hard not to feel the movement of time and a connection with the winters of the past when there was far more to fear in the darkness and far more reason to give thanks for the return of the sun.
Like many people I find the festive season stressful. This year, one look at the hoards of stressed out shoppers almost made me cry off the whole thing.
However, Christmas should be enjoyed, whatever your religious beliefs. For all of us in the Northern Hemisphere it is a little patch of light in the dark months. It is a time to think of those we care about and those that need caring about. It is a time to reflect and feel the turning of the year.
So this year Christmas has found me in a myriad of little ways. This is my recipe for 12 things to do over the Christmas period to rediscover your own reason for a winter celebration.
- Play a game with your loved ones. (I played gin with my dad…once we remembered how.)
- See the geese arrive. (There’s few places better than The Wash for bird spectacle at this time of year.)
- Eat roast dinners with friends. (Three and counting.)
- Have a kiss under the mistletoe. (Accomplished…never you mind with whom.)
- Welcome back the light. (Waiting for the solstice for this one.)
- Sing Carols in a beautiful place. (Even if religion is not your thing then these are beautiful songs. I went to the simple Othona advent service at St Peter’s on the Wall in Bradwell.)
- Go to a holy place. (Whatever that might mean to you. I visited the underground delight of Royston Cave. A place where two ley lines cross.)
- Give gifts without expecting anything in return. (I made my fabulous mechanic Doug happy.)
- Buy yourself a present. ( A new pair of binoculars.)
- Embrace your winter layers. (Can you beat the 11 items of clothing I once wore on a cold day?)
- Fall in love with winter trees. (what’s not to love?)
- Mmmm. you tell me what this should be.
The problem with being a participator in life is you are never quite sure where your participation may lead.
Yesterday I set out on a winters walk with four friends. From Trosley Country Park, we headed for Coldrum Long Barrow along the North Downs Way, catching a glimpse of winter sun and trudging through the lanes, sticky with mud.
I was carrying a homemade solstice kit thrown together the previous evening. Whatever your religious leanings, I like the idea of celebrating the solstice. As someone who works outdoors all year I am still in tune with the cycle of the seasons and work with them.
The spring means dawn starts to survey lapwings, the summer is long days on the marshes, autumn is reaping a hedgerow harvest and this winter has been bumping around in a landrover with farmers as geese rise from the estuary edge and flocks of curlew gather in the fields.
As the days grow shorter (if not this year colder) then I feel it, the dying of the old year and look forward to the return of the new. So I am in sympathy with the druids practice of marking the solstice and happy to give it a nod with an offering and a ritual.
However arriving at the stones yesterday afternoon I became swept up in Kent Gorsedd’s solstice celebration. As an array of colourful characters walked out from the village of Trottiscliffe, led by the priest clothed untraditionally, as my friend pointed out, in an array of ‘made in India’ colourful cloaks. Still, wreathed in ivy garlands and carrying hazel staffs entwined with honeysuckle they looked cool.
At the base of the long barrow sat a women sounding a skin drum and, when they called for participants, I was over the fence like a jack rabbit as my friends lingered out of reach.
The ceremony commenced with offerings to the Guardian Spirit of Coldrum Stones, wafting of incense, holding the hands of two rather handsome druids either side of me and some ritual chanting. So far, so good. However, when the high priest suddenly wielded a claw like scythe in the air, I was all ready for scarpering. I eyed the dog and the chid in the circle as far worthier sacrifices than me but thought it might be a case of, ‘last in, first out!’
However, instead he brandished a big bunch of mistletoe and offered us all to step into the darkness at the centre of the circle and sacrifice something in order to receive the light. The sacrifice was merely our thoughts and in return we received a bit of ‘trickery’ from dark witches and offered a piece of mistletoe. I was game, took my mistletoe, offered my dark thoughts and returned to my place in the circle.
The ceremony wound on with folk singing and drumming . I was conscious of my rumbling stomach and my friends waiting on the side lines. I began to feel as I once had when caught in a Catholic service in the Vatican surrounded by nuns, but, once participating, you have to accept you are in for the long haul. It is all very well jumping a fence and saying, “I’ll join,” but maybe you should read the small print first.
Suddenly I was being asked to step into the circle and be initiated into the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Coldrum Stones. A few timid looking souls offered themselves up, but blimey, I had only come out for a country walk, I wasn’t about to join a new religion I knew nothing about. I hung back, my desire to participate having reached its limit, at least for today, no one seemed to mind. The new initiates joined hands and offered words of allegiance. It was a nice ceremony and afterwards came the bit I liked best. The feasting on bread and mead, the most tasty, spicy, woodland drink I think I have ever had the delight to sample.
A little more singing, a bit of ritual chanting and the procession wound away. My friends and I conducted our own low key ceremony. writing down something we wished to leave behind in the old year and burning it on the alter stone and then writing on a piece of material something we wished to come to us in the new year. This we tied on the tree overlooking the site hung with offerings. We feasted on peanut butter sandwiches washed down with cherry brandy, we gave a call for peace to the four directions, we walked on. I felt the year turn.