The season of December
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
I’ll be honest with you about December. You know when you are walking along, mind on things more important than moving your feet, and then your foot catches on something and you trip, and it takes your brain a few seconds to come back to the present and work out that something is going drastically wrong, then you try to move your feet quickly to catch up with your torso which has carried on moving forward at a faster speed than you anticipated, and in an effort to realign yourself you realise it’s too late and you end up hastening the inevitability of your face planting fast and hard onto the floor? Well, that’s how I feel like I’ve landed in December. Flat, dazed and not quite sure what happened.
But before I go into that in more detail, what do we know about the month of December?
As you may remember from previous blogs in this series, our calendar year used to begin with March until they added January and February, so most of our months are basically named wrong now. December is the twelfth and final month of our year and also the last of seven months to have 31 days, but it got its name from the Latin word decem, meaning ten, because it was originally the tenth month of the year.
Now, it's not the last month in my series, because I started my series in March, so this is where you go 'Ahhh! I see what she's done now, she started it there because that's where the original calendar started before January and February were added! Clever cookie.' And I go; 'Yes, of course that's what I was doing, it was all totally planned and not a random coincidence at all'. Wink.
Apparently the winter days following December were not included as part of any month originally and January and February were created out of the month-less period and added to the beginning of the calendar. Strikes me they would have been better added to the end and called Elevember and Twelvember and then we'd all start our year on the cusp of spring in March (except for the Southern Hemisphere folk of course, who would be starting it in Autumn, but still a lovely time to begin a year). However, such things were decided this way back then, and I’m not saying it has anything to do with men being more in charge, but well, it is a bit of a coincidence. As my dear old Grandma used to say ‘I’m coming back as a man, dear.’
December contains the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the day with the fewest daylight hours, and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere and the day with most daylight hours (this excludes polar regions of course). And December in the Northern Hemisphere is the equivalent of June in the Southern Hemisphere. Apparently the beginning of the astronomical winter is traditionally the 21 December, whereas the meteorological winter starts on 1 December. The birthstones of the month are turquoise, zircon (I’d never heard of that, but it looks a bit like amber) and tanzanite (another stone I’d never heard of but is a stunning blue colour like a sapphire but a bit more purpley) and curiously the birth flower is the narcissus, or as most of us know it, the daffodil. And your first thought might be the same as mine - ‘Why?! They flower in spring.’ Well, apparently there are some forms that flower in the winter, like the ‘paperwhite narcissus’ - so that’s why. I also discovered that ‘Narcissus’ in Ancient Greek was a hunter who was known for his beauty, rejected all romantic opportunities and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water - I didn’t need to read any further to work out where the word narcissist came from! So it appears December actually has touches of spring about it, which I wasn't expecting.
I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. A magical thing. And sweet to remember. We are nearer to Spring than we were in September. I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. Oliver Herford
Our garden currently looks about as far from spring as you can get, it’s a leaf disaster zone and anything that is in bloom looks like it’s struggling (except for my beautiful flowering clematis (Wisley Cream) which is in full bloom, but even her flowers are designed to look a bit droopy). The leaves that are strewn across the garden look less like they chose to leave the tree and float gracefully to the floor to dry out, and more like they were ripped off by the wind, flattened by the rain and melted onto the gravel.
I looked up my usual month poems that I’ve used in these season blogs to see what they had to say about December, what wisdom or perspective would they offer for this festive month? Here’s what they said in their final verses about the year:
Chill December brings the sleet Sara Coleridge, The Garden Year
December brings us shorter days and cold Catherine Pulsifer, Months Of The Year
The Fall Months of October, November, and December do bring Shorter days and we start wishing for spring. Kate Summers, The Months of The Seasons
In December if you please, We will trim the Christmas trees. Unknown, Months of the Year
December comes and ends the year. Unknown, Each Month
To be honest there wasn’t a great deal to glean from these. In summary I’d say December is clearly the time for cold, shorter days, wishing for other months, gardening jobs and basically, to paraphrase the last one, it comes and then it goes again.
When I was reading other poems and quotes about December there were many of them, more than most months, and they often followed a similar theme, largely - weather. Specifically, bleak/cold weather like Henry G Hewlett describes in his poem, December:
An old man's life, dim, colorless and cold, Is like the earth and sky December shows. Henry G. Hewlett, December
Or there’s snow, or the expectation of it, like in first half of Joseph D Herron’s poem, December:
Child of the grand old winter, December floateth by; And the ground without is bare and white As the moon in the cloudless sky. The wind blows cold and dreary, Across the whitened plain; And we see the oaks with their branches bare, Through the frost on the window pane. Joseph D. Herron, December
Comes to close the parting year; Fleecy flakes of snow descend. Caleb Prentiss, December Days
Snow is certainly a theme here in England, we have it on many of our decorations, we put it on Christmas cards, we long for a ‘White Christmas’, even though when we get one everybody whines that all their travel plans are complicated or cancelled. Apparently we get them on average every 6 years but not many of us can recall when the last proper one was. Basically the definition of a White Christmas in the UK is the Met Office observing the fall of one snowflake between the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK. There have been a lot of White Christmas’ reported over the years but the last widespread one in the UK was 2010, and I do remember that one because we were driving around picking people up to get to the Carol Service who were too scared to drive in the snow (it helps having a husband from hilly Yorkshire who revels in the opportunity to practise his handbrake turns in icy empty car parks).
But it’s not just the expectation of snow that songs, poems, films and television portray towards us. There are also the scenes of children having fun, carol singers wrapped up warm, family gatherings, big ornately decorated trees, angels proclaiming God’s glory, Santa bringing presents - there is a lot that’s painted about Christmas that sets expectations high and feels very removed from how most of us are feeling. Especially if you’re alone or in the process of facing loss or grief.
And in some ways December is all about expectation - advent (it’s a whole separate blog post in itself), but the word Advent was adopted from Latin adventus meaning "coming; arrival". Traditionally advent anticipates the physical nativity in Bethlehem, receiving God into your heart and the Second Coming (yup, if you believe Jesus came once you believe He's coming back) and, seemingly now, tiny chocolates behind tiny cardboard doors. Advent is the expectation that things will get better, hope is coming, chocolate is coming, help is on the way. Wouldn't that be a cool way to view December as a month?
If you think about December right now, I’m guessing what comes to mind for most of us is Christmas, and of course Humbug Day (full disclosure I just saw that on Wikipedia for the first time and wanted to say it out loud - Humbug Day! It’s on 21 December and a day to get rid of all your frustrations and pressures of the festive season before Christmas - not the worst sounding idea - unlike Cat Herders Day, also in December). If we’re honest, after we think of ‘Christmas’, there’s probably a feeling that follows where a small wave of fear courses through you as the word conjures up the enormous amount of jobs that need doing, money that needs spending, and human interaction that is coming your way.
So December is largely dominated by Christmas thoughts and plans, especially if you live with a diehard ‘Christmas belongs in December’ man like I do. December is the month that Chris finally gives in and allows himself to eat mince pies - because of course ‘mincemeat and pastry could only be eaten at Christmas thing’. I’m not fully sold on this. Although, between you and me, this year he ate some in November, after some very clever friends of ours tricked him into it, by putting a dilemma in front of him - let food go to waste or eat a mince pie, and if there’s one thing Chris dislikes more than mince pies, it’s cat hair (but also, food waste).
Anyway, here we are in December and I’ll explain why my entry into it felt less than glamorous, because it also has a lot to do with expectations. I was expecting (always dangerous) to come back from my break from podcasting over the last few weeks feeling very refreshed, renewed, invigorated and mildly smug that I managed to get some writing done, catch up on podcast stuff and be ready for everything to kick off again just before Christmas. However, nothing about my break went to plan. Our time in Portugal seeing the big waves, switching off and attempting to get bored as a way to disconnect from the stress of life, was foiled from the moment we arrived. Chris was ill. Which turned out to be his first ever experience with Covid. After two years of going into work as normal as a key worker during lockdowns, mixing with people and being exposed to it in every which way, including living with me when I had it, he chose to get it on day one of our trip away. Then by the time we left Portugal I had got it (second time’s a charm) and I returned home to what was supposed to be a ‘writing week’ with both of us facing a cold thing we picked up off the back of Covid. As I came out of that and into a week where the podcast was back up and running I found myself needing to get a lot of things done, and on top of that because of seeing family and other situations coming together I have to get all the family presents for both sides sorted and wrapped to give to others this weekend. So my Christmas shopping jumped up a few notches too. All in all I found myself in December as if I’d been tipped out of a barrel onto a treadmill with no speed control and I’m just trying to keep up until I can work out how to slow it down.
This time last year I wrote the blog ‘Christmas - friend or foe foe foe?’ and I talked in detail about why Christmas is probably a hard time of year for a lot of us and how we might be able to become friends with it again. I also wrote the blog 'A weary world rejoices' for weary folk on Christmas Eve. So I won’t repeat myself on these areas. We also released a podcast episode chatting about what we find hard about it as a childless couple: 'Chris' loss of Christmas spirit', and we’re releasing an episode about Christmas later in the month and why it’s hard and what we can find to bring us hope and comfort if we’re sad, grieving or just struggling with the season - so check those out if you’re feeling like you need to explore those more.
But for this blog about ‘The Season of December’ I wanted to look at what the month itself is saying to me this year, and what I can learn from it, without it being only about Christmas.
One thing I don’t like but don’t know how to change yet about December is that it’s often so busy. In more years than I care to count, I’ve found I’ve missed all I love about December because I didn’t stop amidst the craziness and pause to look around, take it in and enjoy it. I’m mean I don’t dislike the month itself, I just don’t seem to have the space to see it for what it is without everything else like Christmas dominating it.
I‘m certainly not as down on the month as William B. Tappan in his poem, ‘December’:
Farewell, December! cheerless as thou art, Arrayed in gloom, thou hast for me no smile; Thou canst not whisper pleasure to this heart, Thy aspect cannot life's sad ills beguile. O'er thee, the sombre child of Winter, stern, Nature is weeping in funereal gloom; Cheerless the trophies that adorn thy urn; Cold are the rites that consecrate thy tomb. William B. Tappan, December
Wow, bitter much, William?!
December definitely gets a rough deal and a bad, cold, grey tint to it in literature. Not that this is fully inaccurate when it comes to life in England, my daily photos for my Instagram account www.instagram.com/aviewobserved are certainly looking like 50 Shades of Grey skies at the moment. But as you know, I’m a sucker for an underdog and when a month is being painted this badly, I can’t help but join the fight to find all its hidden gems.
In my blog ‘The Season of October’ I mentioned Scragglepie, the scraggly magpie we have in our garden who can’t fly very high (I think he has short or deformed wings) and seems to always be on his own. Every day I watch the other magpies in groups or pairs, their bold white bodies and black wings soaring between the houses, then I see Scragglepie finding the peanuts I put near the hedgehog feeder on the ground as he flits around and tries to get onto the fence by hopping up the cherry tree branches. The highest I’ve seen him is on the garage roof, where he parades up and down with his lack of feathers and dingy grey chest. The other day I came around the corner towards the house in our cul-de-sac and he was in the middle of the entrance to it on the road, I was very pleased to see him so near and smiled of course but seeing me he panicked, flapped about two feet into the air, twice, and then ran under the hedge where the hedgehog hole is into our garden (and where I’m fairly sure he enters from too). I smiled again, but it also made me feel sad, after all I’m the one that’s made his name famous on a podcast (not that he knows he has a name). I’ve always felt this way about our distance from nature, it’s so hard to help it when it needs it because it has an inbuilt fear when it comes to humans. If you’ve ever tried to help an injured animal you’ll know that frustration and if you’ve ever watched an internet video where a wild animal allows a human to help you’ll know that joy too. I think some of us are like this about December and/or Christmas. We see it coming with all its seemingly bright colours, strength, presence, expensive gifts, happy family scenarios and big smile, and we assume it will cause us pain or hurt if we engage with it, so we run under the nearest hedge and hide.
But I’m wondering if our view of it is wrong, and maybe it might actually be able to help us in some ways. Now sure, it has to be the right help. If I were to lovingly capture Scragglepie, put him on a small lead, feed him hamburgers, stroke his feathers, watch TV with him and let him sip my Earl Grey - I would literally kill him. Equally if I were to assume his life wasn’t worth living and take an air rifle to him, I’d literally kill him that way too. The best way I can help Scraggle is to provide food where he can get it and enjoy the amusement he offers me from afar, learn from it and take inspiration from his perseverance.
And I think it’s like this with December and Christmas, it can help and heal us or it can hurt us, and annoyingly the choice is ours.
Throw yourself into everything you’re invited to, surround yourself with situations you find hard or hurtful, agree to doing too much so you end up broken or shattered, squeeze too much into the diary so you never get time to rest - and you will hurt yourself and blame the month or season. Shoot it down completely and watch it die and you will feel no better. Choose wisely what you engage with, how you view things, what you dwell on, and what you do and you might find it can help and heal you.
What if December is actually offering you whatever you want? Not what society, culture and all that says you should do, but the month of December itself. Maybe on a one-to-one basis December is offering us time alone, off work, no jobs to do in the garden, to soothe our wounds and heal our hearts if we let it, with great food and nice drinks. Maybe December is offering us time with other people, parties, friends, markets, streets lit beautifully, fancy hot drinks and carol singing. Maybe December is offering us a season to find others that need help. Maybe December is offering us a time of hope, peace on earth, reflective church services, frosty walks and cosy hats and blankets (or whatever the equivalent is in the Southern Hemisphere). I believe this is a season that offers us all a choice - find the pain in it or find a purpose in it.
Muriel Rukeyser wrote a poem called ‘Born in December for Nancy Marshall’ for a friend of hers, in it she wrote:
You are like me born at the end of the year; When in our city day closes blueness comes We see a beginning in the ritual end. Never mind: I know it is never what it seems, That ending: for we are born, we are born there, There is an entrance we may always find. They reckon by the wheel of the year. Our birth’s before. From the dark birthday to the young year’s first stay We are the ones who wait and look for ways: Ways of beginning, ways to be born, ways for Solvings, turnings, wakings; we are always A little younger than they think we are. Muriel Rukeyser, Born in December for Nancy Marshall
She has viewed December, as her birth month, as the end of the year for others but the beginning of life and a new year for her, an entrance where others see a close, and an opportunity to know you are always younger than people will assume when they hear your birth year. She has chosen to take one thing and turn it into something else for her own purpose.
If I’m honest, I don’t even know why most people in our country celebrate Christmas, I know (from the latest census results) that it’s only the minority that now believe it to be Jesus’ birth, hope come down, a light in the darkness. And whilst others might try to switch Happy Christmas to Seasons Greetings, the problem for me is that, take the nativity out of Christmas as so many would prefer to do, and what we are left with, is all the aspects that cause people pain: a holiday that alienates the poor and lonely, gift giving just funding someone’s lifestyle, expectations of snow and a man in a red suit bringing presents based on your behaviour, the forced family celebrations that more people dread than look forward to, the competitiveness of decorations and trees and children in tea towels acting as shepherds, and endless amounts of wasted money and food in a world where people are literally dying through lack of both.
At the heart of the original nativity we have a young, scared couple going through relationship issues, a very unexpected and harshly judged pregnancy, rejection, confusion, poverty, fear, outcasts (shepherds in those days were viewed as some of the worst in society), wise men, very expensive gifts, a guiding star and angels filling the skies with singing. What about that is not relatable or something we want in life? Even if you only took it as a myth, why is that not a better reason to celebrate this month than all the other rubbish we stuff into December instead? But sadly this, and the month of December itself, has got lost in the commercial noise that Christmas has become.
So, like many things in life, I’m going to suggest to you that December and Christmas (they are hard to separate) come with choices attached, and if you take nothing else from what I’m saying then I want you to know this, because I speak to so many people who seem to think a lot of what they do in December isn’t a choice. It is a choice to have or not have a tree, to send or not send Christmas cards, to see or not see family, to buy or not buy presents, to go or not go to church, to engage with Christmas or not. They are not easy choices, nothing worth it in life is, but nevertheless they are choices. And what choices you make will determine what you get from this month.
And yes, I know you might be saying ‘but it wasn’t a choice for me to be… grieving/alone/childless/poor/cold/hungry/swamped at work’, and I hear that, but there are still choices around what you do with this month within the pain you’re facing, much as it seems so unfair the choices are down to you when you’re the victim of something painful.
For me I’m still on a journey to accepting that Christmas will never be what I spent my life assuming it would be before I knew we’d be childless. The joy of shopping for presents for our own children and knowing that this year we’ve nailed it will never be ours to experience. The joy of watching a child’s excitement on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day morning as they open those gifts will always be for other people and not us. No amount of watching other people’s children will fill that hole as perhaps we hoped it might. All our fears of getting the balance right with family and celebrations will never suit everyone. We will always be making decisions on pleasing others versus protecting our own hearts in a way people can’t fully understand or won’t want to. Christmas with just the two of us might be lovely, and easier, in many ways but it'll never be as special as we try to make. It will always be a lonelier time because other people are busy with their families and will vanish for a few days, probably when we're at our loneliest. Answering ‘How was your Christmas?’ will always be a bit weird. And no amount of comparing our situation to those that are far worse off will actually help us feel better. The list goes on.
Everyone has their own list of things they struggle with in December, whether you know you’ll be alone, know you’ll be with those you fear, know you’ll keep Christmas cards just to have something to open on Christmas Day, know you’ll fight with your partner, know you’ll be monitoring the drinking of a family member, know your anxiety levels are too high for the large family event that your going to host, know your marriage might not make it through, know it’s the last Christmas with someone you love, know your heart will break all over again for someone who’s not here - every list is different, but everyone has one.
All around us there is heartbreak, but I’m here to suggest that there is healing all around us too, however, it just doesn’t force itself upon you, you have to be willing to find and step towards it. And over the last few Decembers and Christmas’ Chris and I have chosen to do that. Nature will never do that. Scragglepie will never come to me for help or with a broken wing, but as humans we have more choices, we can identify things that help us and choose to move them.
Maybe you need to not do the family Christmas this year, and scale it back, like so many had to during Covid, and we all survived. Maybe you need to choose to find a way to survive Christmas that acknowledges you can’t handle it and you put a plan in place to just get through it instead. Maybe you need to seek out others like you and all get through it together. Maybe you need to ask someone to check in on you because you don’t know you’ll survive it. Maybe you need to step out of your own bubble this Christmas and be there for someone else. Maybe you need to commit to be there for someone else even though you have your own plans (‘I’m here all day just to message you if you need me, I’ll keep my phone close.’ Thanks to technology it’s very possible to be present in one place and be there for someone else in another). Maybe you need to detach yourself from work or other lifelines and tune into yourself or family. Whatever it is, you have a choice to do it, but you also have to be the one to do it.
A couple of years ago I chose to focus on all I love about Christmas rather than all I found hard. I chose to know that some areas of the season will cause my heart pain but that’s ok and I can minimise their impact, e.g. people in family units and generations enjoying time together - I can limit how much I’m exposed to that, Christmas card sending when nothing much changes and I have little to share - I don’t have to send cards to everyone that sends one to me or to anyone at all really, the financial cost of things I’d like to do but can’t - I know I can aspire to them and if I can do it one day I’ll love it all the more for it, the memories of Christmas’ gone by and people who aren’t here any more - I can find ways to incorporate them now and celebrate the memories I have.
Instead of being bitter about the season I relish in the real Christmas tree smell in the lounge, the lights I put up around the house and on the outside for others to enjoy in the dark, the marzipan, mince pies, chocolate logs, Christmas cake with cheese, and amazing food on offer, the new Christmas candle tradition we’ve started (after pinching the idea from other friends without children), the Christmas lights up in town and big Christmas trees, the Christmas displays in shops and garden centres, the Christmas carols (I never get to sing enough of them, arrive too late and gone too early, but I don’t have to limit them to Christmas), the true meaning of Christmas where it all started; of hope, peace, love, joy, redemption, and Jesus, and having our tree up for as long into January as I can.
I think I’m starting to see December, despite all the craziness as a light at the end of a long tunnel. The tunnel is the year, and at the end it is literally decorated with Christmas lights. It’s like a welcome, welcome to the end of the year, ‘well done tired traveller sit down and enjoy all I have for you’. If you took Christmas out of December I believe it would be a very restful month, we’d all start to wind down work, we’d have the last couple of weeks off to see us into a new year. I’d revel in the blankets, dark nights, fairy lights (I’m keeping those! I actually have them in our lounge all year anyway), hot chocolate, did I mention marzipan? and all the great things that we’d have come up with to celebrate ending the year anyway. I suppose this is where December started originally, but amid the quiet month we celebrated the birth of a King who had come from Heaven to Earth to offer peace and hope to a weary world, by joining with others that also wanted to celebrate this special time and sing songs about it. That’s the sort of Christmas I love the sound of, something that refreshes, renews, restores and rejuvenates my soul, ready for the next year ahead.
Whatever it is you love about December - don’t let the other stuff squeeze it out of this month, take time to stop and enjoy it. It’s a choice. And then maybe, just maybe, one day you might look forward to the month you used to dread.
The second half of Joseph D. Herron’s poem, December, that spoke of a cloudless sky and cold and dreary weather and frost, ends like this:
Then hail! grand old December, We welcome you once more! For the memory sweet of a night you bring, That came in the days of yore. Joseph D. Herron, December
After all, I think deep down, we all want to like December and/or Christmas, so why not take some steps towards making that happen again? What have you squeezed into this month that doesn’t bring you joy? Why not Marie Kondo your December like I did my underwear drawer (and Chris’!) and only choose and arrange things in a way that ‘spark joy’.
And may December’s joy insulate you, and not isolate you.
‘Open your hearts ere I am gone, And hear my old, old story; For I am the month that first looked down On the beautiful Babe of glory. You never must call me lone and drear Because no birds are singing; Open your hearts, and you shall hear The song of the angels ringing.’ Mary B. C. Slade, What December Says
One thing I’ve chosen to enjoy every December is carols, and I couldn’t not do a December blog without quoting the original words from one of my favourites, by Edmund Sears, one that like so many of them, acknowledges the weary world we live in with all its hardship, and the hope that Christmas wants to bring us and that lies ahead.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold; "Peace on the earth, good will to men From heaven's all-gracious King" – The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing. Still through the cloven skies they come With peaceful wings unfurled, And still their heavenly music floats O'er all the weary world; Above its sad and lowly plains They bend on hovering wing, And ever o'er its Babel-sounds The blessed angels sing. But with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song which they bring; – Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing! And ye, beneath life's crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow, Look now! for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing; – Oh, rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing! For lo! the days are hastening on By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever circling years Comes round the age of gold; When Peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song Which now the angels sing. Edmund Sears