In Inside

Mistletoe and December skies

He is nothing if not stoic, brooding on his watch tower  like a mottled tawny and brown drowned rat,  tail feathers scraggly forlorn and drooping down, raindrops dripping off the ends. His head turns and he looks straight down at me before swooping off silently over the fields beyond the road side hedgerow. This is how December has greeted us too; swooping and silent.  And somewhat schizophrenically with dismal mornings of endless rain giving way to glorious afternoons of blue skies and long shadows and back to evenings of gales and streams of rain. I yearn for a properly cold spell.

I see the buzzard most mornings, usually atop his telegraph pole or down amongst the ridges and furrows of the ploughed earth which render him almost invisible unless you look carefully. Sometimes there are two of them and for some reason it always gives me a bit of a buzz and has become a bit of an obsession. I have recently read about similar ornithological obsessions, people counting rookeries for example.

Recently as I drove into Cheltenham (for the pantomime of course) I thought I had spotted what the rookery counters were on about.  Skeletal trees gave a clear X-ray of all the secrets usually hidden in summer. But the pom-pom shapes didn’t look quite right for nests. Their structure was too amorphous, they were too green, not quite sticky or angular enough. And even with my basic knowledge I knew rooks would prefer countryside to suburbs. In the gloaming afternoon the street lights cast their light upward and I realised they were globules of mistletoe.

Annie Spratt at Unsplash

Mistletoe is an odd Christmas tradition. For a start it is a parasite – it feeds off its host tree and as much as Christmas is all about giving, the poor tree is eventually weakened by its uninvited guest (seem familiar?). The Druids held mistletoe in great reverence, as a gift from the gods and held the tree on which it was found as sacred. Kissing under the mistletoe is now a Christmas tradition but goes back to the old Norse war practice of calling a truce under the mistletoe. In medieval times it was hung in doorways to ward off witches. I always hang mine over the Aga because that’s where most people chose to stand when they visit. Mistletoe is not only a parasite it’s also poisonous, so keep it away from pets, children and the elderly.  Best (or worst) of all is the etymology of the plant’s name. The original name was mistaltan, where “mistal” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” means “twig.”

So if ‘dung on a twig’ (weirdly it doesn’t actually have a smell) doesn’t get you in the mood for Christmas I thoroughly recommend Nigel Slater’s ‘Christmas Chronicles.’ It is a book infused with orange zest, marzipan, spices, gluhwein, vintage baubles and sparkling Christmas markets. It has become my Christmas tradition to reread it every year, sat by the fire, probably with a glass of red. It oozes the festive spirit from every page, but also gets you through those days after Christmas and after New Year well into January.  But I think that’s the thing. Christmas is as much a state of mind as it is a time of year; being joyful, and thankful, giving and sharing, spending time with loved ones. Perhaps it is something we should carry with us throughout the year rather than just for a few days in December.

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