With some foreboding we enter the last month of the year, typified by long dark nights and brief days. December was originally the tenth month of the Roman calendar, hence the Latin ‘Dec.’ December is however, the first month of winter and contains the winter solstice on the 21st, after which ones spirits can be boosted by the lengthening days. But in our culture, the preparation and preoccupation with our great winter festival of Christmas often means one is conveniently distracted from the low point of the natural world by a profusion of coloured lights and glittering decorations.
Christmas, being primarily to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, or the Nativity, is intimately blended with pre-Christian, pagan traditions. The Roman world celebrated Saturnalia over the Christmas period, which was typified by much feasting, drinking and cross-dressing! But more relevant to our culture, many of our Christmas traditions come from the pagan solstice festival, known as Yuletide. It is from the Norse and Celtic elements we owe the use of the Christmas tree (Norway Spruce) Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, and other evergreens. Lydiard Park hosts these species, but we are yet to locate any mistletoe.
Fitting in with this long tradition, Lydiard House will be festively adorned with traditional foliage collected from the grounds of Lydiard Park. Lydiard’s Country House Christmas runs from 9th to the 23rd December 2016.
And if you wish to have a go at natural decorations there is an event at Lydiard on 10th December, entitled, ‘Deck the Halls’. Participants collect the green materials and afterwards produce natural decorations, helped by the Estate and Parkland Team. This bookable event runs from 10am to 3pm and costs £20, which includes a light lunch, mince pie and a warm drink.
Generally in the countryside, December’s flavour is a bleak time with colour leached from the landscape, although this year the autumn colours were strikingly good and largely stayed on the trees until Storm Angus. And modern life with its riot of coloured images, merely serve to make December drabber. But looking at the hedgerows one can spot points of colour, such as the remaining scarlet rose hips, known as heopes in Anglo – Saxon, used in those days as a winter fruit and doubtless helped keeping scurvy at bay. Haws, of a darker red hue persist on the hawthorn trees in our hedgerows. Other red fruits to be seen include the berries on the female Yew trees, in which Lydiard is well represented. Although the hungry birds have been active, some ‘snotty gogs’ or ‘snottle berries’ remain. Please note the seeds within the berries are toxic to humans, although they pass through the bird without problems. Significantly, yew was used to denote a site of pagan worship, with many churches possessing a pre-existing yew tree in the church yard. There are yew specimens whose age predates the birth of Christ. Our yew at Lydiard’s St Mary’s Church is well worth seeking out. It is thought to be some 800 years old, and is a female tree, so in most years bear red berries.
The bright greens of moss and lichens stand out against the bleached ruins of the year’s growth, observable in the Church Yard of St Mary’s. At this low point of the year one may spot the tips of snowdrop bulbs, preparing to reassure us the eventual return of the new season of plant growth.
Although bird song is scarce at Christmas time, do look out for the subject of so many Christmas cards, the robin. It is easy to spot because it readily comes close to people. It does however sing at this time with a sweet melodious song, which is to denote its territory.
Finally, if you tire of eating and drinking over the holidays, Lydiard can be an excellent place to get some exercise and fresh air, and look out for the natural features pointed out in this blog.
Wishing a Merry Christmas to one and all.
Mark Eborn, Lydiard Park Warden