Seeking the Spirit of Christmas

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I have found myself pondering the meaning of Christmas over the last week or so.  Now I know that sounds very deep but from an agnostic’s point of view it is quite a key question.

We are a somewhat small and depleted family having lost Dad a few months ago.  There is me, my two adult sons and Mum.  Of course there is also my brother-in-law and niece but since my sister died five years ago his focus, understandably, has been more to his own family, and I find myself thinking of them as an extension to our family rather than the core family if you understand my meaning.

When my sons were small the whole focus of Christmas was around them.  The excitement that built up from shopping trips, visits to Santa’s grotto, school activities until by Christmas Eve they were fit to explode and indeed they did around 4pm on Christmas Day when it all got too much and they burst into tears.  As they got older the focus moved to my niece some 11 years their junior and then we had the trauma of Christmas without her mother.  We found a way of moving forward going through the motions including trips to the pantomime.

This year, as I have said, there will be 4 of us around the Christmas table.  There is no pantomime trip for a range of reasons and it has started to feel that I was going through the motions following a prescribed routine which was fuelled by the media and commerce. It felt as though Christmas was really just a glorified roast dinner with some gifts, that none of us really need, thrown in. This is why over the recent weeks the sense that I needed to provide Christmas and some magic, whatever that maybe, has grown and grown.  It lead me to wonder what Christmas was actually about.  We don’t go to church so once you take out the whole religious meaning of Christmas it seems you are left with the commercial aspect which doesn’t sit well with me at all.

I have said I am an agnostic; despite being christened and confirmed I struggle to embrace organised Christianity.  However, I do believe there is something out there – I have no idea what – and over recent years I have felt myself more empathetic to the old religions, the circle of life, mother nature, call it what you will. I find myself more attuned to the changing seasons, lengthening of days, cycles of the moon than I ever will be to the teachings of Christ or any other religious deity.  I believe more and more in respecting our surroundings and working with nature.

So as I pondered on how to make Christmas special for my small family, how to bring some magic into the house, how to move away from the commercialisation of it all (prompted by my son on a recent visit to a well-known supermarket saying ‘You can buy Christmas here’). I found myself thinking about why we decorate our homes with greenery, why we have Christmas trees, why we feast and why Christmas is when it is?  It doesn’t take much effort to discover that the timing of Christmas coincides, almost, with the winter solstice and the old religion celebrations.  When Christianity was being devised (I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend I can’t think of another word) the key celebrations were timed to coincide with existing pagan festivals in order to ‘sell’ the new religion to the masses.  In so doing many of the traditions associate with the pagan festivals were subsumed into the new celebrations which is why when you start to think about things like mistletoe and the obsession with holly and ivy and how they relate to Christianity it makes little sense – the same applies to some of the Easter customs. The bringing in of greenery into the house was partly to ward of evil spirits, it was for decorative reasons, and  in some cultures evergreen were brought in and decorated to represent gods or goddesses.  Mistletoe was considered by the druids to be extremely sacred. It was cut on the sixth night after the winter solstice and distributed to the people to hang over their doors to ward off evils spirits. As for our modern obsession with gift giving this may have developed from the  Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December.

Where does this leave me and my quest for the spirit of Christmas?  Well I have decided, that I wanted to refer to the winter solstice and nature more, and to start some new family traditions.  So I have left the artificial tree in the loft and instead we had the fun of going to choose a real Christmas tree, the annoyance of trying to get it to stand up straight and we will no doubt spend a considerable amount of time over the Christmas period hovering up the needles but it feels special.  I have kept the decorations simple and traditional – no gaudy tinsel.  Finally, I have used the branches cut off the bottom of the tree to make a wreath for the front door to which I have added foliage collected from around the garden which for me is a celebration of mid-winter and marks the turning of the year and days getting longer – as a gardener something I look forward to more than Christmas.  Just these simple things have brought Christmas to life in our house far more than in previous years.  I think the ‘effort’ of having made/created these things myself rather than buying them ready-made off a shelf means more; my sons have certainly commented on it.

This year it will be a quiet Christmas, with a nice meal, some gifts and spending time together. We will miss Dad and my sister and remember past Christmases and tell stories.  It will be a time for reflection but also for looking ahead to the future and I think that is what Christmas is, for me,  really all about – being with loved ones and sharing good times and in a way tapping into the American tradition of Thanksgiving, remembering how lucky we are in whatever way.

 

 

 

Foliage Follow-Up – December 2014

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I have found it much easier to come up with shots for the Foliage Follow Up post this month than the Garden Blogger Bloom Day post.  I love foliage and I think it really comes into its own at this time of year. A favourite since childhood is Stachys byzantina, or as we called it when I was little, Lambs Ear.

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Sticking to the grey tones there is Pulmonaria which has been self seeding around the garden for some years.  I’m not that keen on the flowers but the leaves are a lovely foil to spring bulbs and you often get different variation.  I am sure I heard someone say that if you cut the leaves back, as you would a geranium, after flowering you got a better plant so I might give this a go.

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The everyday Digitalis purpurea has also started to self-seed around the garden and I think it has quite a structural presence in the garden.

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I like Bergenias which I know isn’t a view shared by all gardeners.  I think their glossy foliage is excellent at this time of year especially those varieties which colour up for Autumn.  They are one of those plants that just get on with it and then when everything else has given up for the year you notice them.

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One more self-sower is the Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’.  They do produce flowers but it is the foliage and the seedheads in the Autumn.

For more foliage posts from around the world visit Pam over at Digging

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – December 2014

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At this time of year any flower is a welcome addition to the garden although many of them you really have to seek out.  Viburnum rhytidophyllum (above) surprised me this weekend with its flowers which are just opening.  This poor plant has suffered from my indecision and is in its third location in the garden, I blame my son’s workshop.  This is the first time it has flowered since 2010 and although it was relocated this year I think its new location is much better for it and is similar to the location it was originally bought for.  Hopefully the flowers are a sign it is happy and as I have no intention on relocating the shrub it should get a chance to thrive now.

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Cyclamen are bringing most of the colour highlights to the garden at the moment.  I bought a batch of the above cyclamen which were being sold as winter bedding to brighten up a bare patch created my removing the dead Acer.  I don’t know what variety of Cyclamen they are as they weren’t labelled but they have been flowering for well over a month now and there are lots more buds to come.  Although they were sold as winter bedding I won’t discard them come the spring as they may flower again next year. I did the same with some other bedding cyclamen below last winter and they are smothered in flowers.

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I don’t think they are hedrifolium or coum as they seem to be much larger plants so if anyone has any ideas I would love to know.  Of course if we have a very hard winter then I am sure they won’t survive but for a couple of pounds they are value for money.

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I always have some primroses flowering at this time of year although the slugs seem to be very good at getting to the flowers before me.

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Primrose ‘Jack in the Green’ has been again been flowering for month possibly since October and probably due to the mild Autumn we have had it seems to have an endless supply for flower buds.  It is such a pretty plant with the white flower surrounded by a green ruff of small leaves at the top of the stem.

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And here we have signs of another primrose about to put on a small but perfect show.

For more Garden Blogger Bloom Day posts visit Carol over at May Dreams.

 

Book Review: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops

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“Oh no” was my reaction when a review copy of Naomi Slade’s The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrop‘ dropped through the letterbox from Timberpress, “Not another snowdrop book”. For indeed they seem to be coming out thick and fast over the last couple of years following up on the real renaissance in galanthomania.

The book is part of the new series of Plant Lover’s Guides from Timberpress – other titles to date include Salvias, Dahlias and Sedums.  I do like the idea of this series which will make an interesting and informative collection on the gardener’s bookshelf and no doubt is hoping to be a 21st century follow on from the very successful Plant Expert series by Dr D G Hessayon.

Naomi wisely does not claim to be a galanthophile, I say wisely because as a well-respected galanthophile said to me once the term has to be earned not just adopted because you like snowdrops. Her interest in snowdrops has grown over the years and as she states whenever she found out something interesting she wrote it down.  Small bits of interesting information are sprinkled throughout the book as highlights just as the profiles of various galanthophiles from both sides of the Atlantic.  One of my minor quibbles with the book is the omission of some notable galanthophiles including Margaret Owen, who sadly died a few months ago, even in the description of Galanthus ‘Godfrey Owen’, which Margaret named after her late husband, there is no reference to her which I think is a real oversight given her legendary reputation in the snowdrop world.

The book starts with how to incorporate snowdrops into your garden whether you have the benefit of a bit of woodland, live in the suburbs or indeed only have a balcony.  There is an exploration of what plants make good companions and the various approaches to planting snowdrops in your space.  We then go on to explore the history of snowdrops, the various breeding programmes over the years and the peculiar condition that is galanthomania.

Naomi takes time to explain the various terms used in describing snowdrops – oh yes galanthophiles have their own terms for petals etc and how you can identify the different species partly from their different leaves.  I have to admit I get particularly irritated when photographs in articles on snowdrops omit the leaves since these are so important to identification and helped me to make sense of this confusing world when it was pointed out to me, so I was glad Naomi spent time explaining this with diagrams.

Then we have a section featuring a selection of snowdrops that the reader might like to consider.  This is no small undertaking as there will always be someone who thinks you should have included this or that variety rather than the ones you have chosen.  Naomi has included a nice range which demonstrate the variety available – there are species, some with green markings, some yellow markings, some double etc and this helps the novice understand that there really is a difference between snowdrops; well most of them!

The book concludes with a selection of snowdrop gardens and events on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.  Personally I think there are some significant omission in the UK event selection as none of the society snowdrop events have been included and I believe one of the two mentioned isn’t going ahead this year – it’s a tricky thing to include an events list as it looses its currency so quickly.

Overall I think there is just about space in the current offering of snowdrop books for The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops.  It is well written, informative particularly for someone who, like me, has a curiosity about this small but revered plant.