Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

R. I. P. Winter

It’s beginning to feel both as though autumn has been with us forever, and that it is especially reluctant to leave us, this year.

This year has been a mast year; the trees and bushes have been laden with prodigious quantities of nuts and berries. The hawthorns, especially, seem to be weighed down with berries, and we have gathered large quantities of nuts from the hazel in our garden. There are so many acorns beneath the oaks nearby that there is a thick, continuous, crunchy, carpet of them underfoot. Traditionally, this has been said to indicate a harsh winter ahead, although how the trees and bushes are meant to work this out when we have no idea what the weather will be then, heaven only knows.

What it really indicates, of course, is that the climatic conditions have been such throughout the year that these trees and bushes have successfully produced their large crops. Nothing to do with what will come along later.

On the other hand, the leaves have held onto their greens for longer than usual and only turned late, and still seem most reluctant to fall. It has taken the determined efforts of a few strong winds just to remove about half of them. Certainly, around my part of Britain, anyway.

It is not cold. There are no signs of a proper winter chill approaching, with the long-range weather forecast contenting itself with predictions of the occasional cold spell in the next month, which takes us through to mid-December. In the garden the grass and many of our other plants are still engaged in that crazy autumn growth spurt.

Of course, it was never unusual for November to be wet and mild, and we may yet have a biting cold winter, although I wouldn’t bet on it. It is a long, long time since we have had a winter like that in these parts. In my lifetime, only the winters of 1963 and 1978/79 really stand out as being extremely harsh, although a few others have had shorter periods of cold and snow. The expectation for winter around here now is that it will just be chilly and wet. I think only once in the last six or seven years have we had more than just the odd flurry of snow; that was from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ a couple of years ago, and even that only lasted a few days.

We seem to have lost winter somewhere along the way, which sounds very careless of us.

In fact, that is quite a good way of describing it.

You don’t need me to tell you we have been careless in the way we have interacted with nature, the result being our world is heating up dangerously. And in our part of the world, this has led to hotter, drier, summers and milder, wetter, winters. There has been a notable increase in destructive flooding events. Downpours are frequently very heavy and long-lasting. Rather than being spread out through the month, we may get an entire month’s worth of rain in less than a day. Summers, conversely, have become very dry.

This is absolutely nothing to the extreme climate conditions suffered by millions of others in other parts of the world, but it helps to bring it home to us that the Climate Emergency is real, and it is happening. With everything else happening in the world at the moment, this seems to have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media for the last six months.

R. I. P. Winter.

Happy…Birthday?

I know I’ve already checked back in since Christmas, but, well, just to say it was slightly quiet and fairly peaceful. Hope you all had a nice Christmas and New Year. We didn’t do much, but that suited us just fine.

We didn’t do much at all.

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Anyway, back to business. It was my cousin’s birthday, recently. So I sent her a card.

But most shops seem to think you only want Christmas cards, that close to Christmas, and make it really difficult for you find a birthday card.

‘You’ve got thousands of Christmas cards on display, what about birthday cards?’

‘Birthday cards? There’s a couple in the cellar at the back of the shop, I think, on the top shelf in the toilet, underneath the anvils. Old Harry will have the key, but I’ve no idea where Old Harry is. On holiday, probably. Beware the steps are broken, too. And slippery. And there’s no light. And there was an oil-spill there recently. You’d better watch out for the hyenas as well. In fact, why don’t you just go away? Unless you’d like some Christmas tat, that is…’

‘A couple?’

Well, there’s no call for them at this time of year.’

‘No call for them? What about all those people with birthdays in December?’

Birthdays? They shouldn’t be doing that!’

‘Well what about those that do?’

‘That’s their lookout, I’m afraid. Should be ashamed of themselves, coming round here in December and having birthdays. Shouldn’t be allowed. What sort of month is December for birthdays, eh? It’s not right.’

So I sent one of my own greetings cards. I send quite a few, actually. It’s not just to save some money, or to avoid hand to hand combat in shops near Christmas. I’m quite pleased with my hand-made cards, usually with small paintings on them. What? Oh, certainly. Yes, I do. No, not very expensive, thank you for asking. Thank you so much.

But then I had to post it, and the cost of that is ridiculous, now. God knows how we can afford to send the Christmas cards.

Ah…we didn’t. I was forgetting, for a moment.

But, I was talking to my wife about that and said ‘I think if we really want to save some money, it’s not cards I should be turning my artistic endeavours to.’

‘No? What then?’

‘Postage stamps. There, that would save us a few quid.’

‘It’s an idea I suppose. Hmm…or, you could just cut out the middleman altogether.’

‘Ah, twenty pound notes, you mean? That’s an idea.’

‘Yes, we don’t want to be greedy. And everyone forges fifty pound notes, anyway.’

‘No, that’s right. I suppose about ten or twelve a day would do us. That’s not greedy, is it?’

‘It would be a good use of your time, I suppose.’

Anyway, I’ve been busy the last few days. Just don’t ask any awkward questions.

A Christmas Carol – 1

I haven’t seen much of Bob, recently.

To be fair to Bob, he’s been rather busy. But he came round to my house the other day. Well,  the other evening, really. He was carol singing. And it was only just December.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked him. He look puzzled.

‘Carol singing, of course. Why?’

‘Why? It’s only just turned December, that’s why.’

‘Well, all the shops have their decorations up now.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘And some have had, for the last few months.’

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‘True, but…’

‘And they’re all playing Christmas songs.’

‘Unfortunately true…’

‘And half the kittens on social media are dressed in red and white and chasing Christmas baubles around on the floor and then batting them with their cute little paws…’

‘Stop it, Bob!’

‘So why can’t I go round carol singing?’

‘Because there’s only one of you and it sounds awful!’

‘Oh…sorr…eee!’

‘And what are you collecting for?’

‘Huh?’

‘That tin you’re rattling. What’s it in aid of?’

‘Our Christmas lunch.’

‘Bob! You can’t do that! You’re supposed to be collecting for charity!’

‘Am I? Who says so?’

‘I…er…I don’t know. You just are, that’s all.’

‘Well, I’m collecting for our Christmas lunch!’ He rattled the tin meaningfully towards me. ‘Silent Night…’ he began again, his voice rising suddenly about two and three sevenths octaves. I shuddered. The kittens left their baubles and ran for cover. ‘Holy Night!’

‘Shut your bloody racket!’ Came my neighbour’s voice – slightly muffled, but carrying a clear threat of violence.

Bob left quickly.

 

In other years, I’ve written a few short stories for Christmas, but not this year.

Bob has inspired me to re-imagine a few Christmas Carols for the twenty first century.

Here is the first one.

Strident night,

Angry night,

Down cheap booze,

Get into a fight.

Punch and scratch and kick and bite.

Tell the other bloke he’s just a shite.

Sleep in a prison cell…oh!

Sleep in a prison cell.

For those of my readers who do consider Christmas to be a holy festival, I must point out that these little offerings are intended as my rant against the excesses and the commercialisation of Christmas today. I hope you will not take any offence, for none is intended!

The Christmas Story!

 

Well, it’s now December, so I suppose it can’t be too long before we begin to see the first of the Christmas decorations going up in the shops, and then, ooh, another week or so and we’ll start seeing some Christmas adverts on TV.

I said I definitely would not do another Christmas short story this year, so here it is. Part one of three. Probably.

In a way, this continues on from last year’s Christmas stories; I’ve put the links to them at the bottom of the page if you’d like to refresh your memories!

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It was almost the end of another tough year, another year of scrimping and scraping and just getting by. It didn’t seem right, somehow, that Santa should be on the breadline for most of the year, for that was how Henderson thought of himself now; Santa.

He didn’t really think they would take him on again this year, though. Not after what had happened the previous year, that is. But to his surprise, Nicol had smiled at him and said ‘Yes, it’ll be great to have you back on board again,’ without the slightest trace of sarcasm in his voice.

‘How have you been?’

‘Well, my back’s a bit stiffer than it was last year.’

‘You’ll welcome the new changes, then,’ he said, bitterly.

‘Changes?’

‘Yes. I’m afraid the government has taken an interest in us this year. That could spell real trouble in the future – if you come back next year, I expect you’ll find we’ve been privatised. They’re already making noises about cutting the number of presents.

‘It started last year. The Equality Commission visited us with a long list of what they called ‘positive changes’ that we needed to make.

‘Every single household with children needs to be visited, they said.

‘We do that already.

Each child needs to receive gifts of equal value, so that no one can think themselves disadvantaged.

‘We do. We always have done.

And you need to log each visit.

‘We do, it’s computerised. Has been for years. We have records going back to Victorian times.

‘And more crap like that. It feels like the writings on the wall, now.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, this year they were back again. So if your back’s a problem, you’ll be pleased to know that all the sleighs are wheelchair accessible now; or they will be,’ he corrected himself, ‘just as soon as we finish making the changes.

‘It was sprung on us at the end of November. Some twat with a clipboard and one of those stupid plastic ID cards hanging on a chain around his neck turned up unannounced in the office. He had come to find out whether our employment record reflected the government’s ‘investment in diversity’ – whatever the frick that means. Had we heard that a shopping mall in the USA had a black Santa this year? Yes, I said, we had. And over the years we’ve had sled-loads of black Santas. And brown ones. Pink ones. One year we even had a yellow Santa. Real yellow, I mean. Jaundice, it turned out to be.’ He sighed. ‘That one didn’t turn out well.

That’s good, he said, and ticked something on his clipboard. Then: What about disabled? You’re Joking, I said. How’s a disabled Santa going to get up and down chimneys?’

‘But I didn’t have to…’ Henderson began.

‘Yes, but he wasn’t to know that. That’s for you to facilitate was his reply, though. Bloody hell, can’t these jerks even speak English? Oh, well, that won’t be a problem, I told him, I’ll just put ramps and a ladder in each sleigh.’ Nicol ground his teeth together and looked really angry. ‘I was trying to wind him up, but the bloody idiot just smiled and said oh, well done. I’ll tick that one off too, then.’

‘If I haven’t met that bloke, I’ve certainly met one or two like him.’

‘Oh, there’s more. I’ll need to come and take a look at your sleighs, now. He said. And I should have seen what was coming, then.

‘What?’

‘Now they’ve all had to go back to the workshops to be made wheelchair accessible. We’ve only got two available at the moment, which means things are a bit hectic.’

‘Does that mean you really have to take on Santas who are…well…in wheelchairs?’

‘Fortunately, not.’

‘I’ll bet that’s a relief.’

‘Just elves.’

‘Elves?’

‘Uh-huh. Elves.’ He shrugged. ‘No reason why not, I guess. You know how it works, it’s just a bit slower than usual. It means I put in a requisition for two more sleighs and teams to cover the timings. Probably the biggest pain is the changes to the delivery program.

‘Anyway, that doesn’t affect your team. Here’s your schedule.’

 

They were both rather thickly built, unshaven men. One was smoking a roll-up.

‘They don’t look much like elves’

‘You don’t look much Santa Claus.’

‘I look more like Santa Claus than they look like elves, though.’

‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s your team. They are fully trained and know what they’re doing.’

‘Are these guys from the same agency as me?’

‘No, they’re long-term unemployed. From the Job Centre. Another government stipulation, I’m afraid. Forty-two percent of our intake this year have to be candidates who have been out of work for a year or more. But they’re okay. I did a trial shift with these two yesterday and they were, er, just fine.’ Henderson stared at him. His experience with elves the previous year had made the subject a rather sensitive one. Then he looked at the elves, who stared back at him in what seemed a rather unfriendly manner.

‘No need to gawp,’ said one. ‘Ain’t you never seen a bloke in a pixy hat before?’

‘Not for a while,’ he conceded. ‘I’m Henderson, by the way.’

‘Come on then, Henderson, let’s get in,’ said the other. ‘Let’s get this crap over with, so we can go home.’

‘Put that cigarette out first, Edwards,’ said Nicol, sharply. ‘You know the rules!’ Edwards glared at him, then threw the cigarette across the yard.

‘Bastard!’ he muttered, under his breath. Henderson took his seat at the front of the sleigh and waited for the ‘elves’ to get in.

‘This will be fun,’ he thought, gloomily.

***

If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories:

First one

Second one

Third one

Fourth one