The two faces of January

Long tailed tit
Long tailed tit

by Heather Elvidge

A month named after the god with two faces is bound to be changeable and sure enough, January hasn’t let us down.

Janus was a Roman deity who kept the gate of heaven, as well as earthly gates and doors. At the opening of the year he looks back to the year that’s gone and forward to the year to come.

This month he has smiled from time to time, although we’ve also seen his other face, the one that turns the ground to iron.

So which one will we see on St Vincent’s Day? According to a rather bold saying, a ray of sun on January 22 promises “prosperous weather throughout the year”. And if the birds should decide to sing, then folklore says we’ll have an early spring.

On sunny days starlings wheeze, sparrows twitter and there’s an occasional “teacher, teacher” from a great tit, but generally birds need the stimulus of longer days to start them singing. Robins are the exception, but they have a territory to defend.

For most birds the priority is finding food. Cold weather is especially dangerous for small birds that feed on insects, such as wrens and long-tailed tits. Wrens are seldom seen now as they’re keeping to the undergrowth, but groups of long-tailed tits can be spotted at bird-feeders or searching trees for insect eggs.

When days are still short and wild food is scarce, that’s where we come in. Our bird table offerings can make a real difference. If you have regular feathered visitors, then the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch would like to hear from you. It’s happening this weekend, the January 24-25. See www.rspb.org.uk for details.

Love, fate and fire

January 25 is a crowded day in the calendar. It’s the feast day of St Paul; Scots celebrate the poetry of Robert Burns; and the Welsh get romantic on the feast day of St Dwynwen.

Christians remember the conversion of Paul, who was transformed by a vision from persecutor of the faithful into a tireless missionary. Much theology was founded on Paul’s writings, particularly his advice to various Christian communities. St Paul was killed during the reign of the Emperor Nero.

In fifth century Wales, Dwynwen rejected her intended husband and found solace in God. At her convent on Llandwyn, off Anglesey, couples anxious to know their fate flocked to a freshwater spring that was home to some fortune-telling fish. Today that spring still attracts the curious, while St Dwyn has become Wales’ Valentine.

It’s also an important day for weatherlore. A fine St Paul’s is said to mean a good year, with fine weather in the harvest months. But if the day is wet or snowy, those months will be plagued by poor conditions.

On the last Tuesday in January a great blaze lights up the Lerwick night. This is Up Helly Aa, the largest of Shetland’s fire festivals.

Up Helly Aa means the end of Yule, which Lerwick men used to mark by firing cannon and parading blazing tar-barrels. When those activities were banned in 1874, they decided to build a 30ft, replica Viking longship - then burn it. The celebrations continue long into the night.