Turning Year: Berries point to a very cold winter ahead

The first candle will soon be lit on the Advent wreath.
The first candle will soon be lit on the Advent wreath.
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This is an extraordinary year for berries, a pointer to a cold winter according to folklore. Nuts figure in weather lore too, with large crops of acorns and thick shells on hazelnuts hailed as signs of a hard winter.

It’s often pointed out that this is simply the result of good growing conditions during spring and summer. Obviously this is true — shrubs and trees don’t know what winter will be like. Yet weather systems move in worldwide cycles, and generations who worked the land saw how springs and summers that produced lots of berries were often followed by severe spells during winter.

Frosty mornings and shorter days mean finding food is the priority for wild birds. They must eat well during the day to enable them to survive the long, cold nights. Those with their own territory, like our robins and blackbirds, generally do better because they already know where a meal can be found.

Some of the blackbirds around now are winter visitors from Scandinavia. They spread out across the country to find a suitable area with plenty of berries, but our resident blackbirds, which don’t stray far from their summer nest sites, aren’t pleased to find incomers stealing their food. Both male and female blackbirds will try to bully the strangers into leaving. It rarely seems to work, though.

At dusk, the blackbird’s loud “chink, chink” call can be heard for a while before it settles down to roost in a thick bush. Small birds like wrens, sparrows and robins head for the densest cover they can find, such as an evergreen shrub or an old, ivy-clad wall. This doesn’t guarantee they’ll be safe. Tawny owls listen for faint sounds among the leaves, and may swoop in to snatch an unsuspecting sleeper.

Advent

This Sunday is the first of four in Advent, the season that begins the church year. Christians wait for Jesus’ birth while also looking to that mysterious event, his Second Coming as Christ the King.

Originally Advent was a time for fasting, like Lent. Today the emphasis is on personal reflection and serving the needs of others. At Sunday’s service the first candle will be lit on the Advent wreath, a circle of evergreens representing eternity and hope.

The wreath has one pink candle, and three blue or purple ones — regal colours, for the King of Kings — with a white candle in the centre. One candle is lit on each Advent Sunday, with the pink one last. The central white candle is lit at a midnight service on Christmas Eve, to mark the arrival of the Light of the World.

Traditionally, wreaths for the home used the secular colours of the season. These are nature’s colours: red holly berries, white mistletoe berries, black ivy berries, and green leaves from those plants that thrive while others are bare.

The custom of using evergreens as decoration — box, yew, broom, bay, and laurel — stretches back into prehistory. Of them all, holly was considered the most valuable: with its cheery red berries, holly brought good fortune and kept malign forces from the home.