Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

Looking north this morning about 9 o'clock.

My father always called attention to the shortest day of the year.
The word 'solstice' was not in his vocabulary, nor the term 'equinox.'
Rather, he was a country man with an intense interest in weather and seasons.
He quoted the Old Farmers' Almanac, he kept thermometers fastened to outside windowsills on all sides of his house, comparing the temperature during a winter cold spell to the nth of a degree.
He marked the autmnal flights of the wild geese, announced the 'first day of winter'--observed the return of the springtime and commented on the 'longest day' in mid-summer.
His interest in the natural world, the changes of the seasons, the foibles of birds and beasts set the pattern of observation and delight early in my own life.
My son was born about daylight on December 22.  In Vermont that year we had been referring to the season as "winter" for many weeks.

The harvested corn ground, a neighbor's roof and the nearby hill framed by the back barn door.
I was standing on the mowing machine, using landscape setting and zoom.

I am Christian in my spiritual walk, so my observance of the solstice is not a ritual occasion.
Folklore and legends are fascinating and it is intriguing to see how the beliefs, customs, and celebrations of other times and older peoples have inter-twined with Christian traditions.

Another zoomed view of Payne-Janes' Hill with a swirl of birds against the clouds.

At this time of year I so often reflect that a reliable source of artificial light--electricity--is
astonishingly recent. Ages of earths' history have passed with only a feeble candle or torch or bonfire to create a small circle of illumination against the long dark of a winter's night.
Beyond that flickering yellow light anything might lurk; wild beast, friend, enemy, could not be reliably distinguished without entering the ring of light.
Little wonder that the lengthening of daylight--and all that implies of warmth, and green growing things--was welcomed with joy.
J. spent a winter or two in Alaska with his family as a young teen. He recalls the exhilaration of summer in "the land of the midnight sun" and the long stretch of winter when daylight was a feeble pall of grey barely distinguishable from night.

J. and I are New Englanders by birth and spent most of our lives there.
This marks our second winter in Kentucky following an interval of a dozen years in Wyoming.
We chuckle when folks here complain of cold weather!
It is still a novelty to walk outside with perhaps a down vest or a light jacket at mid-day.

I went  into the strip of woods which stretches along our western boundary.
It is not an appealing wood with towering trees, but a rather scraggly area of rotting stumps and vine-strangled oaks and flaring cedars.
Clumping along in my wellies, trying not to trip over fallen branches or lengths of trumpet vine, I was surprised to see ahead of me several shrubby trees with green leaves.
When I came up to the nearest one I realized I was seeing native holly.

Moss cloaks a rotting stump.

Bright fungi rise above a rustle of dry leaves.

The bare branches of this dead stump resemble antlers.

Evidence that one of the many wild turkeys met a violent end under the trees.
I would guess the predator might be one of the coyotes I have heard yapping and howling from the woods on nights when it is clear and the moon is waxing toward full.

Several of the twisted cedars show evidence of deer rubbing against the trunks and lower branches.
The deer forage for the ears of dried corn which the harvest machinery missed.
I have seen them bound into the woods as I walk up the back pasture, heard their warning coughs as they lift over the shabby fence.

The skull of an opossum, another victim of the coyotes, or perhaps of a fox.

Pebbles spotted my presence at the edge of the woods and stood watching with suspicion as I clambered back over the leaning wire fence.
I had gathered a handful of holly and white cedar with some idea of making a festive arrangement.
The branches are still on the old wooden trunk in the porch as inspiration fails me.

An old winter carol hums through my mind as I wander about in this mild Kentucky winter.
I noticed it in particular this December on a CD of Celtic Christmas music which I've had for several seasons.  I picked it out on the piano, then thought of an internet search.
Although sometimes titled "The Holly and the Ivy" it is more properly and traditionally known as
"Sans Day Carol", and is of Cornish origin.
I found several YouTube presentations of a John Rutter setting performed with cathedral choirs.
The one linked below is similar to the version on my CD and seems more authentic.
It is perhaps an example of an old carol blending the traditions of Christmas and Yule.

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
                                             And Mary bore Jesus, all wrapped up in silk:
And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly!
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

 Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross:
And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly!
       And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

       Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all:
And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
 And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
         Holly! Holly!
          And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

                                              Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead:
And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
                                            And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
                                                                          Holly! Holly!
                                         And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!


  1. How very interesting native holly looks. Once watched a show on the History channel about how people lived before electrical lights. Very interesting. Days like these were very long for them. No wonder they marked the lengthening of the day. Just goes to show you how much I know about the subject, I thought today was the Winter Solstice. So I guess tomorrow the day will even be shorter!

  2. Jane; I was reading a bit this morning about how the solstice is charted. It seems to move between Dec 21 and Dec 22. I'm still pondering the fact that it occurs officially for us in CST at 11:30 p.m. tonight while a few miles to the east over the county line it will happen at 12:30 a.m. Dec 22.

  3. I loved taking your little stroll through the woods. I miss VT woods, the forest here is missing all of the undergrowth and seems to just have the towering trees. We have snow and it is snowing again which I am very happy about! I also chuckle when people complain about the cold here. They don't know what cold is!


  4. Shan; The VT woods and fields will always be 'home' in my heart--but winter in KY surely has some advantages. I should think CO is cold enough!

  5. You have just taken me back nearly 30 years to when we used to sing this version at Folk Club. I have just "sung" along and felt connected with our Pagan past, as I did when I created our "wildwood" wreath this week. I feel the connections we still have with our past at this time of year especially.

    Your walk in the woods could have been any woodland hereabouts too . . .

  6. What an enjoyable post. That carol was one of my school days favourites.

  7. Thankyou for the lovely pictures.
    My eldest son, now 47 was born on the 23rd December on Tom's Birthday (Tom is Mr.T) so we have 2 to celebrate in Dec.
    I remember I was in hospital for a whole week all over Christmas as that was the way back then.
    Thank goodness the days will now start to get longer I really don't do well with the dark days.

  8. Just read your reply to yesterday's comment and saw that you used to sing out loud while rambling around.
    This bought a smile to my face.
    When I lived at home we had an outside toilet and I used to love to sing in it because of the sound until a neighbour quite some way down the road mentioned to my Mum that she liked to hear me singing. I was appalled and tempered it from then on, lol

  9. BB; I begin to think that in the UK the 'old ways' have not been so obscured as here. In my family we 'decorated' for Christmas with whatever greenery came to hand without putting a particular traditional significane to it. Suddenly in the US 'decorating'--like everything else--has become very commercial and a sort of status thing--we need to have Martha Stewart and her ilk informing how to make a wreath![?]

    Kath; The Sans Day Carol is now firmly lodged in my head--surely I must have heard it sometime before in my rather long years!

    Briony; Our sons were born the same year--only a day apart.
    Too funny about singing in the 'outhouse.' That was the 'toilet' at my Grampa Mac's farmhouse next door. While I don't recall singing while about my business I may have done--I surely sang and hummed everywhere else--sometimes having to catch myself as I worked at my detested arithmatic in the classroom of our rural school.
    Our family birthdays crowd December and January. I recall when our son was about 4 years old--given his b-day present he felt he should then have access to the gifts waiting under the Christmas tree!

  10. Your father sounds like the kind of man I would have enjoyed talking to - full of real country knowledge and weather lore. The Holly and the Ivy is my favourite caro though to me it is the first verse that is significant - I watched the Solstice sunrise from high up on the moors this morning but although I saw both holly and ivy as I climbed through the wood to the moor there was no sign of the deer that would have completed the scene:)

  11. Wonderful photos ...I wish you and your family a wonderful and happy Christmas ...I am sure it will be a fantastic feast.

  12. Beautiful post and lovely pictures of a winter day's walk. I also love the song by the Cheftains! Compared to winters in the Midwest, winter here is very mild. Have you read Winter Soltice by Rosamunde Pilcher?

  13. Even tonight, we realised that the sunset was just a little later than a few days ago. A real sign of renewed hope when the days start to lengthen again!

    Have a lovely Christmas with your family MM.