Saturday, 28 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 28

Now that deciduous trees have shed virtually all their leaves, the evergreens come into their own. Especially eye-catching is the holly, with its distinctive evergreen glossy, spiky leaves and bright red berries. A mature holly can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years. 

Holly is dioecious (meaning male and female flowers occur on different trees), only the female trees will bear berries. Holly is valuable for wildlife. It provides protective cover and nesting opportunities for birds, while its deep, dry leaf litter is used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation. The white flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects and they and the leaves are food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. In winter, holly berries are a vital source of food for birds and small mammals, such as wood mice and dormice. Deer are known to graze the leaves. The mistle thrush is known for vigorously guarding the berries of holly in winter to prevent other birds from eating them.

Holly wood is hard and white, with a fine-grain. It can be stained and polished and is used to make furniture, tool handles, walking sticks and chess pieces or in engraving work and marquetry. It also makes good firewood, burning with a strong heat.

The leaves and berries are toxic, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. As few as 20 berries can be fatal to a child. 

In the Bach Flower Remedies, Holly is used to treat feelings of anger and jealousy. 

In folklore, holly was often paired with ivy, whose black berries symbolized night and darkness. In some regions, holly was seen as the Winter King and ivy the Winter  Queen. The carol 'The Holly and the Ivy' has its origins in this ancient belief. In other lore, the Holly King (symbolising Winter) battled with the Oak King (symbolising Summer) at the equinoxes. Holly was used as protection against malign spirits and lightning (it is now known that the spines on holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects), and it was considered unlucky to cut down a holly tree. In heraldry, it symbolises truth.

Folk names include Holm, Hulver, Hollins, Aquifolius, Bat's Wings, Christ's Thorn, Holy Tree, Christmas Tree, and Tinne. In Welsh it is known as Celyn.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 28

Holly Magic

Go out for a walk and try to find some holly. Cut a few sprays of leaves (and berries if you can) - ask the holly's permission first. Tie them into a bunch with red ribbon (to match the berries) or gold ribbon (to symbolise the holly's 'Kingship') and tie them over your door as a protective winter charm.  

Friday, 27 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 27


The cold winter weather is now getting into its stride. The nights are freezing, the clear skies glittering with stars. The mornings are white with frost, sparkling in the slanting golden rays of the sun. 

This cold brings with it a winter phenomenon that has intrigued and delighted me since childhood - I can see my breath! In cold air, water vapour condenses quickly and easily. As a result, morning mist hangs in the folds of the hills, delineating their contours. And each exhalation of my breath is briefly visible, like a tiny personal cloud until it disperses on the breeze.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 27

Mindful Breath

Our breath sustains us from the moment of our birth until that of our death. Yet for the most part it's not something we think about. Use the temporary visibility of your breath as a reminder to honour it, and give thanks for the wisdom of your body which just knows - without being told - how to take in the oxygen that your cells need and give away the unwanted carbon dioxide they produce so that it can sustain plants and trees. Breathing is simultaneously normal and miraculous. Give thanks and appreciation for every breath - visible and invisible!

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 26

Today is of course, Thanksgiving. It's an American celebration, not really celebrated here in the UK. But in the cold and dark of winter - especially the winter of this unprecedented and most difficult of years - it's rather a nice idea to literally count your blessings and give thanks.

I have to admit I was a bit sceptical in the past about the concept of formalising gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal or other similar practises. But over the years my thinking on this has shifted. Yes, it can feel a bit forced sometimes to produce regular lists of things for which you're grateful. But I've found that rather in the way that the more you seek beauty the more you see beauty, the more you count your blessings the more blessings you seem to have.

One of my favourite ways of practising gratitude is the Jar of Blessings. Do think about making one! But in the meantime, if you want to exercise your gratitude muscle the exercise below is a great way to ease yourself into the experience.  

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 26


In your journal, write a list of things you are grateful for today. You don't have to limit the number of things on your list, but try to come up with a minimum of three things. Include things that you are always grateful for - having a roof over your head, or the love you have for your children. Include things that you are grateful for that happened today - the person who lent you change for the parking meter, the particularly fine lasagne you cooked, the joke your friend told you that made you laugh out loud. Include whimsical things - the cloud you saw that looked like a giant duck, your rainbow umbrella. Include mundane things - the fact that the bus came on time this morning, the beautiful bunch of asparagus that was marked down in the greengrocers. 

It might take an effort to get started, but once you get going, you'll probably be surprised how many things you can list.

Try doing this every day leading up to Yule. Think of it like a kind of Advent calendar where each day you open a door onto all the different blessings that life has for you. If you find you'd like to continue the practise after Yule, please do!

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Secrets of the Road Less Travelled (pilot teaser)

I'm interrupting the usual flow of posts to introduce this trailer for a TV series my immensely talented brother has been working on. It's all about less well-known, but fascinating places in the UK. It's called Secrets of the Road Less Travelled and I think it's a great idea. My favourite in this trailer is 'The Lost Village of Dode' - just the name alone intrigues me. But when you see it... let's just say it doesn't disappoint!

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 25

I have been posting daily Winter Blessings and Beauties now since the day after Samhain, 1st November. By my calculations, that means today we are halfway between Samhain and Yule, and more than a quarter of the way through the period between Samhain and Imbolc. From the perspective of writing a daily blogpost on winter, the first 25 days have gone by really fast! The days continue to shorten, the nights grow colder, and Yule grows ever closer. 

Apparently 25th November is St Catherine's Day, or to use its old name, Catterntide. Jacqueline Durban has written a wonderful blogpost giving a traditional recipe for making Cattern Cakes here. If you would like to mark the occasion, the Cattern Cakes sound like a wonderful way to do so!

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 25

Mark the Midpoint Between Samhain and Yule

At the midpoint between Samhain and Yule, take time to pause and sense the shifting energies. Samhain is the onset of winter and Yule its midpoint, when the sun reaches its nadir and pauses, before beginning to grow in strength again - just a little each day. can you sense a difference in the pulse of life? Does the air smell different? How is the soft animal of your body reacting to the shortening days and frosty nights?

Take a moment to recognise and give thanks for the patterns of the ever changing year. Take in a good breath of cold winter air, and raise a toast to winter (hot spiced apple juice, maybe?). Or celebrate by baking a batch of Cattern Cakes!   

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 24

The essence of winter is a period of rest and renewal for the earth. It's a time of repose, a break from the buzz and bustle of life, breathing space in the seasonal cycle of germination, growth and harvest. 

For humans, adequate rest and sleep is required to recharge our batteries, allowing our brains time to reorganise, consolidate and process the events of our waking lives, and our bodies to repair, rejuvenate and rebuild themselves at a cellular level. Our requirements for rest can fluctuate depending on such variables as age, levels of activity and health. 

So, do you get as much rest as you need? I know I don't always manage to get enough hours of sleep, and at times I let myself get completely overcommitted and stretched too thin. If I'm just a little overtired from lack of sleep, I can usually get back onto an even keel quite easily by taking a nap or going to bed early. But on the occasions when I've been pushing myself too hard for weeks or even months at a time, a few early nights aren't really going to be enough. Ideally at those times I'd like to take a holiday or go on retreat - but that's not always possible. It's for such times that I invented what I call 'nest therapy'. 

I indulge in nest therapy when I'm feeling completely drained physically and/or mentally. The first day that I have to myself is nesting day! I find a quiet, secluded spot in the house or (in summer) the garden. I use every duvet, cushion, pillow, quilt, blanket and throw in the house to build a soft, cushiony nest that I can curl into. I retreat into my nest with comforting things such as a flask of hot tea (or icy lemonade in the summer), a good book or a colouring book and pens (if I'm not too tired to want entertainment), some snacks, a cat or two... and I just rest. I eat, drink and drift in and out of sleep according to what my body tells me it needs. I completely avoid all thought of 'should' or 'ought' and focus on self-nurturing and rest. I prefer to avoid electronic forms of entertainment like radio, TV or internet during my nest therapy, listening instead to the rain on the roof or birdsong and letting my thoughts just drift.

I've enjoyed nest therapy in dappled sunlight under a silver birch tree in the summer, alternately dozing and listening to bees buzzing in the clovered lawn and the soft murmuring of the chickens. I've enjoyed nest therapy in the depths of winter, curled snugly under blankets and nest-sharing with a purring cat. Dozing, dreaming, feeling the knots in my shoulders dissolving and the fog of exhaustion gradually lifting. It's not something I do very often, saving it for those times when I need more than just an early night. But on every occasion, it has been deeply restful and restorative. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 24

Winter Restorative: Nest Therapy

At those times when you're in need of some serious rest and relaxation, try a day of nest therapy. 

Set aside a day - or at least a few hours -  all to yourself. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. Put down a cushiony layer of pillows etc on which you can lie - or you could use an airbed. Drape quilts, blankets and duvets around the edges to keep you feeling safe and secure. Bring those things you need to help you feel comfortable, safe, entertained etc - such as books, snacks, a water bottle or flask, your journal, a favourite stuffed animal - and place them in your nest or within easy reach. Turn off your phone if you are able to. Get into your nest and make yourself comfortable. Relax - you've earned a rest!


Monday, 23 November 2020

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 23

This morning I had to scrape ice from the windscreen of the car before I could drive to work, and the trees and fields were wrapped in fog. There is something quite magical about the way mist and fog change the world. Sounds are muffled, boundaries blurred, a new horizon is plotted as the world beyond a certain distance appears to simply vanish. A misty, foggy day makes me want to play mental games of 'what if?' with myself. What if the wider world really has vanished? What is this new island set adrift in a blurry sea? Where does the sky end and the land begin? What is real?

Fog renders the world a liminal space, a crossing place between the mundane and the magical. The air we breathe is simultaneously air and water. The world is there as usual and mysteriously hidden at the same time. We are walking on the land and in the sky at the same time!

I love this poem by Edward Storey, which manages to convey the ephemeral magic of fog. Those last two lines! "While in the village, children sleep/never to know they slept in sky". How gorgeously magical!

Winter Blessings and Beauties

Walking on the Land, Walking in the Sky

On the next foggy or misty day, try to get out for a walk to experience and fully appreciate the unique magic of the phenomenon. Imagine the new boundaries set by the fog are permanent. What would the word be like then? Try to hold the paradoxes and contradictions of fog in your mind. Know that you are walking in the sky at the same time you are walking on the land. Feel the blessings of earth, air and water surrounding you.