The night after Twelfth Night, we take down the tree and all the decorations. We do so with as much ceremony, nostalgia and silliness, as when it went up. There is a kind of ritual that the family have learnt, seized upon and added too – and there is an underlying reverence for Midwinter. A folk memory of bringing the green in and gentle lights in the dark.
I wrap the tree decorations with care: ones the children made when they were smaller, Nan’s last remaining antique glass bauble, a much-loved dog, ornaments brought home from Canada, long ago (a goose, a loon, a tiny beaver in a walnut shell). There is an Australian fairy wren, coloured glass birds and foxes, hedgehogs, deer and each year, the newest one Mum has given me. Each is imbued with significance, sentiment, memories of Christmases past – and wishes for future ones
These shortened days of muted, pearly, mistletoe-light are full of simpler, starker beauty. Magic, where you look for it. Misted, amber droplets hang from thorns of bramble arches like fairy lights; a wet yew stump gleams a rich, sinuous mahogany. In high winds, a flock of linnets returns across the white sky like a handful of salt grains thrown into a head wind.
Winter storms have brought big trees down: an ash, snapped like a pencil in frustration, a sweet chestnut split along its barley-twist seams and towering wild cherries: damson-coloured ribbons and curls of frilled bark hanging like torn rags. On the hill, the old dewpond is frozen and dappled with the morning’s brief snowfall. Lichens and moss brighten the woods with unexpected colour. On the lane, a field maple branch, encased entirely in lichen, had smashed onto the lane. The brittle, twiggy bones denuded of bark and cuffs of encrusted lichen had been moved to the side, leaving a pile of shocked, powdered Verdigris in the road, as if it had shattered off an elaborate candelabra.
Some of the pine boughs, holly and ivy brought into the house three weeks ago go on the fire, sending sparks up the chimney, into the night. I take down the mistletoe with an old reverence, and hang it outside in the apple tree. I smear some of the berries, wedging sticky pearls into nooks.
Days later and I’m still missing the Christmas tree smell and those evenings where we give ourselves permission for the fire, the tree, family, a book to be everything; and enough.
My youngest daughter wakes from a bad dream. To dispel it, we fling open the windows. The night is starlit. We lean out the window to look up at Orion, hands up for a slow, nightly cartwheel over the slope of the downs. A fox barks three times, ow-ow-ow, at familiar constellations and she is comforted. Even in January’s bareness, there is still fire, love, comfort and wonder, lighting the dark. Of course there is.