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The Nature Sketchbook - December

December heralds the start of meteorological winter and brings high average rainfall of 166.4 mm and cold average temperatures of 5.2C.

It brings the winter solstice when we have the longest night and the shortest day. Also, known as mid-winter, the cold, wet and dark can feel bleak for the human soul and spirit as in the Christmas carol.

Perhaps as an antidote, now is the season of celebrations that bring light, life and nature into our lives and homes. Many traditions come from times when we had a greater connection with the seasons and nature. Pagan or pre-Christian beliefs and rituals have entwined over the years with those of the Christian Churches and indeed with those of capitalism!

The Celts believed in seasonal deities, the Holly King of Winter (the Wren) and the Oak King of Summer (the Robin). These deities were enemies and at each solstice one gained supremacy over the other until the next solstice with the Robin winning over the Wren once the winter solstice had passed. Perhaps that is why the Robin became a symbol of Christmas?

A more recent explanation is robin’s bright chest plumage being somewhat like the bright red uniforms worn by the Royal Mail when the Victorians began sending Christmas cards by mail.

Holly grows as either male or female and whilst all holly trees flower, only the female trees have berries. This is known as dioecious and protects individuals from self-pollination. Celts and Romans brought evergreens inside in winter believing them magical. Christian mythology likens holly to the Crown of Thorns adorning Christ’s head on the Cross. The berries speak of Christ’s blood and the leaves of everlasting life.

There’s a white fluffy seedy plant seen in hedgerows now, I never knew its name and for years noted it as cotton bunny tails. Finally checking the correct categorisation, I now know that it is wild clematis which in the wonderful system of colloquial nomenclature is also known as grandfather’s whiskers or old man’s beard. I have read that in times gone by, the plant was gathered for homes as a natural tinsel like decoration and that it also had the name Father Christmas.

An elf, says Britannica is a mean spirit, bringer of disease or nightmares or an elusive creature of the forest. In recent years they have been known to live on Christmas shelves and to engage in amusing antics in the night to surprise and delight our children. Another clever commercialisation perhaps but one in a long line of tradition, mocking dark and malevolent forces we fear?

Outside in the woods, you may find a scarlet elf cup, not a vessel of revelry but a bright scarlet fungus and an usual pop of colour in the dark midwinter.

Studio Notes

I am exhibiting

  • Cheddar - The Arts Quarter Gallery winter exhibition runs from 21st Nov – 14 Jan (Tue-Sun 10am – 3 pm), The Lippiatt, CHEDDAR, BS27 3QP

  • Newbury Town Hall with Newbury Art Group from 30th Nov – 3rd Dec (9.30 - 4.30)

I have a number of affordable illustrations here.

My last zine of the year is available here.


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