by Heather Elvidge
With less than four weeks to the winter solstice, only the robin spares time to sing. Finding food is birds’ priority on these short days.
Groups of fieldfares move through the thorn trees, chatting to each other as they nip haws from bare branches. Below them a wren scampers, searching for tiny insects – a cascade of notes, a flick of her tail, and she’s gone.
A lone starling, perching near summer’s nest under the roof tiles, burbles for a moment or two and then he’s off. Little flocks of titmice – great, blue, coal, long-tailed – twitter softly as they scour a tree for insect eggs. They won’t linger.
The first of the season’s mistletoe auctions took place this Tuesday at Tenbury Wells in Herefordshire. This is the heartland of mistletoe, where old cider apple trees still host this remarkable plant. Holly and mistletoe from Tenbury ends up all over the country; reports say the evergreens have plenty of berries this year.
Andermass and Advent
On Sunday Scots of a traditional bent will be toasting the country’s patron, St Andrew. As on Burns’ Night, piping in the haggis is a high point of the evening, although a more unusual dish used to be on the menu. In nineteenth-century Scotland, and parts of England, this was the traditional day for a squirrel hunt.
Lace makers in the Midlands were having a jolly too. Creating lace by hand was a strain on the eyes and daylight was preferable for this close work; yet the short days meant working by candlelight. Andermass gave them an excuse for a few hours off, because Andrew was the patron saint of their trade.
To celebrate, the lace-makers enjoyed hot elderberry wine, cider and Tandra cakes. These were buns made from bread dough with added lard, sugar, raisins, lemon peel and eggs. There was also an odd custom. Hitching up their long skirts, the women leapt over a lighted candle placed on the floor.
Jumping through fire changed a person’s luck for the better, although this usually meant leaping a bonfire. Clearing a two foot-high candle in long skirt and petticoat was quite a challenge — if the flame went out there’d be bad luck for a year.
These customs faded away at the end of the century, when lace-making looms made the skills of the hand workers redundant.
This Sunday is the first of four in Advent, the season that starts the church’s year. Christians wait for the birth of Jesus, while also looking to that mysterious event, his Second Coming. So the first Sunday of Advent is solemn, with readings about the Lord coming in judgement at the end of time.
Originally Advent was a time for fasting, like Lent. Today the emphasis is on personal reflection, watching and waiting for Christ’s presence while serving the needs of others.
Waiting is something we’re not very good at now. We want, and expect, everything immediately.
The weeks leading up to Christmas can be especially frantic, so if you’re wilting under the pressures of present buying, then treat yourself to a day off. No crowded stores, no online shopping – November 29 is Buy Nothing Day.