DECEMBER - "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year" - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sunset over the lochan
We're promised snow at Christmas! That could change of course - you wouldn't believe the differences of opinion the family have over the predicted weather! And all because we each listen to different weather forecasters. But, for the time being, we are expecting snow. No - sleet - it's changed!!
I remember cruelly cold Christmas Days and I remember unseasonably mild ones too but I have only a handful of white Christmas memories.
The earliest one is of a very small Susan trundling along the garden path, pushing a brand new dolls' pushchair in torchlight, after spending a wonderful Christmas Day at my grandparents' cottage in Belshaw Lane, Belton (or down Carrhouse as we used to say). The family always spent Christmas Day there and now I wonder how on earth Granny Ivy managed to feed us all with just an oven attached to the fireplace in the living room and a tiny and very primitive electric cooker in the scullery.
But she did - and how! It wasn't just Christmas Dinner either - there was also an enormous high tea to end the day.
Getting back to that white Christmas evening - I was fascinated by the wheel marks left in the snow by my pushchair. I kept turning around to see if the marks would stay. There was only a thin layer of snow but that thin layer allowed the day to be labelled "White Christmas".
A decade later there was another scant covering when my Uncle Peter Jackson drove me home from Crowle to Belton after a happy Christmas Eve helping Auntie Gwen and Sandra in Auntie Gwen's shoe and drapery shop on Crowle High Street. I had a glass of Babycham - my introduction to alcoholic beverages! I loved the atmosphere in the shop on Christmas Eve and Uncle Pete, Auntie Gwen, Steven, Keith and Neil would be with us again the next day to celebrate Christmas with Granny and Grandad - and then for Boxing Day at our house. Those family Christmas times were precious.
By Christmas 1986 we were in Orkney and learning how to celebrate without extended family. We arrived with four children. By Christmas 1990 we had five and then, by Christmas 1993, we had six. We had the craziest and most joyous of times there. Each parish had its Christmas party - non-denominational - and the event was completely centred on the children - our kids still have the gifts they were given at the village Christmas parties. The children made tapes for Granny in England - they read Bible stories and poems, sang carols and Christmas songs and wished Granny a very Happy Christmas in their Orcadian accents!
Then we were back to Lincolnshire for a while - and the delight of having relatives and old friends around us again. It was essential to sing "Away in a Manger" on the doorstep every Christmas Eve before spending the day at Auntie Gwen's house. Then, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, there was just about enough room for the cat in our very full house!
We moved to Caithness in 2009 and spent Christmas in Argyllshire in a self-catering cottage which shared a yard with a stable for horses. It was a very white Christmas. We'd only just moved in and we had to pass Berriedale Braes to get south to Argyll. We were sitting in our car for ages before we could go on further. The temptation was to go back but we'd arranged to meet our son and to share Christmas with him in the stable yard so we kept going - slowly!
Before Covid we often travelled that way - for shopping in our city, Inverness, visiting our daughter and her family, hospital appointments and education-related events etc.. Every time we passed through the tiny settlement of Berriedale I was reminded of a lady, with a cheery smile, who walked along the line of vehicles, that Christmas of 2009, asking if we needed anything - blankets, hot drinks and the like. She must have felt very cold but her kindness still warms me twelve years on.
That was most definitely a white Christmas and, on Boxing Day, we climbed the hill behind the Argyll cottage - and some of us came back down on our bottoms! I met the challenge though!
Here we are - now the day after Boxing Day - and still not a sign of the promised snow. Family in Cumbria for Christmas had snow yesterday - but here, in the frozen north, not a flake!
The mouse came back! Twice!
On the first visit it chewed its way into a packet of "Glass and Screen Wipes-Anti-Mist Technology". They were in the cupboard under the shower room sink. It was removed by means of a baited humane trap and taken over to the other side of the valley.
It only just managed to get back in time to share our Christmas. The smell of Christmas Eve baking must have seemed like heaven to a little mouse. There it was, waiting for me, on Christmas morning, as I peeped into the kitchen to see if Santa had filled my stocking. The poor little thing had its leg caught in the humane trap so it was taken across to the broch (which someone decided to build across the road from our house!!!) and promised scraps there. It ran off happily - no doubt relieved it didn't have to find the bridge in order to cross the river again. The traps are still empty this morning so it either found gleanings from the Iron Age or it went a bit further and discovered Baillie Farm larder!
At the beginning of December we had some very wintry weather with a few snow flakes and more hail. One day there was snow at the other side of the county when there was none here.
But snow isn't the only phenomenon of interest in December. Some creatures are curling up in order to reduce the surface area open to heat loss and thereby keeping warmer. But there are still things going on. We're not far from the coast here - in fact nobody in Britain is too far from the coast - and this is a good time to indulge in a spot of wader-watching. This is where the "no unsuitable weather, just unsuitable clothing" saying comes into its own! Layer up and keep your head, hands and feet (sticky-out bits) snug. Okay - I haven't been yet - but I mean to!!
The sense of quiet slumber in the garden and in the countryside is enchanting. Growing things are resting before the big push to flourish in the springtime. Not so the little daisy who turns its face upwards even at the bleakest time of year. Some small plants find nourishment from their underground appendages - even in deep December. In the autumn, I planted some of Granny Emerson's shamrock from our old home in Wick. It has travelled everywhere with us and, at every new home, it has flourished. I brought it in soil and put it between two roses. Earlier this month I noticed that it has settled in and is already growing. It originally came from my great grandma's garden on Station Road, Epworth, Lincs. - and she died in 1955. Now if that's not a miracle!!
So, not everything is sleeping! Those animals who don't hibernate become less active. There is a general feeling that everything out there is in slow motion.
Our very own Stempster deer are here every day - and they don't just wait for the dark. I see them, in the daytime, in the field across from us - their white bobtails giving them away. They show up on the trail cameras as they clear the wall to get in amongst the trees. On Christmas Day, we had a stag in the garden. These are not the large red deer - ours are roe deer. They really make themselves at home and don't budge until they hear the door open - when an internal bell must ring a warning - Dog! Off they go - their ballerina-like acrobatics get them out of harm's way incredibly quickly.
Our bird visitors - small and large - seem almost tame. The wrens, tits, finches and sparrows will let me get quite close up to them when they are feeding and the hen harrier keeps a short distance ahead of us as Orlando takes us for a walk. The hen harrier, nicknamed "Henny", spends a lot of time close to home. Recently we've had a heron flying over too. And very welcome it is - until we get the pond installed! Their sharp beaks damaged my mum's pond some years ago now.
One of the most amazing things in Nature is a starling murmuration. My daughter filmed one at the beginning of this month. No dancing troop is able to duplicate the elasticity of a starling murmuration. I've seen them like this many times and I never grow tired of observing their shape shifting against the sky.
We've had some superb skies in December. The wintry colours are breath-takingly beautiful. As the moon was becoming full and Venus was visible before dark, the sky was a perfect blend of blue and grey with a pink/grey band on the horizon. That was before the solstice. The day after the solstice was a very dull, very grey, very dark day here - but inside Christmas preparations were going on apace and all seemed cosy and companionable.
But Orlando still needs his walk! When we walked down to the river at that time, the river seemed lower. It was more musical than before - tripping over rocks and echoing under the bridge. Did I mention how I love the river!
Orlando's walks are punctuated - and sometimes dominated - by encounters with brown hares. He almost bursts with excitement when he spots one - or when one finds him - because I'm convinced they tease him - knowing full well that he is on a long lead! Orlando has ended up with bruised pride and a sore nose when he has pursued a hare into the bank of a ditch. Sometimes, when he is asleep in his basket, a hare even creeps into his dreams - teasing him mercilessly!
It's been a staggering year. We staggered into it and now we are staggering out of it! Somewhere, in those twelve months, love and compassion crept in. If they had not, we wouldn't still be staggering! I made a New Year's resolution last year - and, so far, I've stuck with it. As soon as the clock strikes midnight, however, I'm shelving that one, and starting afresh with a 2022 resolution.
It's just a bit o' fun - and we all need a little gentle entertainment just now!
Whether or not you make New Year's resolutions, whatever your religion or if you have none, whatever your skin colour/hair colour/eye colour, wherever in the world you find yourself when the bells chime, I wish you, with absolute sincerity, all the Love in the world for 2022.