December takes us full circle, down into the depths of the year and then up and out the other side. The dark triumphs, but briefly. This month there are yet more festivals of light and battles of fire and darkness: Hanukkah, Yule, and the big one, at least in Britain: Christmas. Before it was Christmas Day, the 25th December was celebrated as the birth date of Sol Invictus, the Roman god of the sun, and it is possible that the date was chosen to underline Christ’s role as bringer of hope and light. Just as the longest day at midsummer brought a sense of foreboding, the longest night brings with it great optimism. We feast and light fires, lanterns and candles to ward off the dark, and it works. By the end of December the gloomiest days are behind us.
Sometimes it takes darkness to make us appreciate the light
Landscapes and gardens are all bones now, with just little tufts of leaves clinging to the ends of branches, the last produced of the year, determined to have their allotted time. When sunlight comes it is weak and lemony, and the countryside is a watercolour wash of flax, buff and beige, with occasional ink crows and telephone lines. Deep frost shadows can linger for days behind tall hedges and hedgerows, the sun never threatening them. The days may be short and cold but the night is long and beautiful now, with the moon at its highest and clearest, and the stars showing at their brightest. Sometimes it takes darkness to make us appreciate the light, and anyway, you never know what you might see if you step outside on a December night and look up.
The cold winter moon versus the warm summer moon
In winter the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun but towards the moon, so the sun is low in the sky but the moon is bright, clear and high. In summer we are tilted towards the sun but away from the moon, so the sun climbs high but the moon stays low (and looks more orange as we view it through a thicker slice of atmosphere). The moon will be at its highest, whitest and brightest this month.
Constellation of the month – Gemini
The constellation of Gemini, the Twins, can be seen low in the east in the early evening, rising high into the sky as the night wears on. It will be right overhead throughout January and February. Find it by drawing an imaginary line down the ‘handle’ of the Big Dipper and through the ‘bowl’, then following this line until you reach the twin stars of Pollux and Castor, each representing the starry eye of a twin. In fact they are very different. Pollux is the nearest giant star to the sun, a mere 34 light years off, and Castor is a system of six bluish-white stars and red dwarfs. On a clear, dark night, look just off of the bottom left of the constellation for star cluster M35, visible to the naked eye but quite beautiful through binoculars or a telescope.
Photo by Emanuel Hahn on Unsplash
Although December marks the beginning of meteorological winter, it is not the coldest month. That honour goes to January, mainly because the remnants of summer’s warmth that are captured and held in the seas around us ebb away slowly, still having an impact in December. Because of this it is also not, sadly, a month when there is a particularly high chance of snow. In fact, most parts of the country are more likely to see snow at Easter than at Christmas, although this doesn’t stop us dreaming. There is a high probability of air frosts though, which have plenty of time to build up over the long dark nights.
Average temperatures (°c): London 7, Glasgow 4
Average sunshine hours per day: London 1, Glasgow 1
Average days rainfall: London 17, Glasgow 22
Average rainfall total (mm): London 53, Glasgow 120
During the course of December, day length decreases by:
22 minutes, down to its shortest at 7 hours and 49 minutes on the 21st, and then increases by 5 minutes by the end of the month (London).
28 minutes, down to its shortest at 6 hours 58 minutes on the 21st, and then increases by 7 minutes by the end of the month (Glasgow).
Average sea temperature
December is a fine month for interesting flotsam, so walk along the tide line on a west-coast beach – especially just after storms or the highest tides of the month – and see what you can find. Atlantic currents circulate in a clockwise direction, and in early winter anything floating on these currents is given a helping hand by westerly gales, sometimes the tail ends of West Indian hurricanes. Exotic seeds that fall into the sea in the Caribbean can bob and float along on these currents and wash up on our shores.
In Ireland sea beans (Mucuna sloanei seeds), sea hearts (Entada gigas) and Mary’s beans (Lathyrus japonicus subsp. maritimus) have long been considered lucky finds with protective qualities, and hung in cattle byres and around children’s necks.
Planting by the moon
3rd quarter to new moon: Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.
New moon to 1st quarter: Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.
1st quarter to full moon: Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.
Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.
Sprouts are at their sweetest and most flavourful after a frost
Jobs in the garden
Check and improve wires, ties and stakes on trees and climbers before high winds. Hold everything firmly in place so nothing gets bashed about.
Plant new bare-root top fruit and soft fruit now for fruit next summer and autumn. This is prime time for buying and planting apples, pears, quinces, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants.
Make a bean trench in which to plant next year’s beans. The trench should be as long as you want your row to be and about a foot deep and wide. Line it with newspaper and fill it with kitchen waste as you have it, topping with soil each time. This will provide a rich root run for these greedy and thirsty plants.
Glut of the month – Brussels sprouts
Sprouts are at their sweetest and most flavourful after a frost. Harvest from the bottom of the stalk upwards, as those sprouts at the base ‘blow’ and lose their shape first.
Make a nutty winter coleslaw by mixing shredded Brussels sprouts with grated carrot, apple, toasted walnuts and mayonnaise.
Cold, cooked sprouts come back to life when fried in butter until the edges are crisped, or as a part of a bubble and squeak, with a runny fried egg on top.
Sprout tops are another gardener’s perk: loose leafy bunches, sometimes with baby sprouts attached. Harvesting them now will have no impact on the rest of the crop, so chop them off and fry them up with crispy bacon and sage.
Photo by Keenan Loo on Unsplash
Garden task – plant a shrub for winter fragrance
This would seem like a crazy time to flower, and with so few pollinators about, most of the garden packed up long ago, saving its flowering energies for a time when success with the birds and the butterflies appears more likely. But every niche in nature will be filled, and there are some plants that flower now precisely because there is so little competition. Because of the winter paucity of pollinators, these outliers do not rely on the visual extravaganzas most flowers employ – for a bee to be attracted by the sight of a flower it needs to be buzzing pretty close by, and the chances right now are slim.
Get a winter-flowering shrub into the ground now, and you will forever more be able to pick little sprigs that will fill your house with fragrance in mid-winter
Instead, winter-flowering plants produce huge volumes of fragrance, from tiny petalled flowers, all the better to withstand winter’s vagaries. On a mild winter day the clean, citric fragrance of a witch hazel or the wafting spiciness of a daphne will carry far further than its immediate surroundings, signalling to anything in the vicinity that there is pollen to be had, if they just take the time to search it out. This is good news for the gardener, as is the fact that this is shrub-planting time. Track down a winter-flowering shrub and get it into the ground now, and you will forever more be able to pick little sprigs that will fill your house with fragrance in mid-winter. Witch hazel and daphne are the two most commonly grown, but look also for little and evergreen Sarcococca confusa, with its huge tangy orange scent; sweet-scented Viburnum x bodnantense, ‘Dawn’; and the aptly named wintersweet (Chimomanthus praecox).
Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beetroot, leeks, parsnips, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, winter cabbage, and stored potatoes, borlotti beans and winter squash.
Cranberries, satsumas, clementines and pomegranates are arriving from southern Europe and the US. There are still plenty of home-grown apples, pears and quince.
Nuts are plentiful: hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts.
Black truffles are in season.
Ask specialist butchers for duck, goose, grouse, guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, venison and wood pigeon. There is – fairly obviously – lots of turkey to be had.
Vacherin cheeses, only made in autumn and winter, are available now from Switzerland and France. This is also the season for Stilton, extra-mature artisan cheddars, Chevrotin des Aravis, Comté, Époisses and Gruyère.
Brill, sardines, skate, clams, mussels and oysters.
Ingredient of the month – Stilton and Stichelton
Stilton has long been considered a cheese to be eaten at Christmas, creamy and strong and perfectly offset by a small glass of port and a crackling fire. This is because it used to take between six and eight months to mature, so cheese made from April to June would be ready in December. Now maturing times have shortened, Stilton changes in character through the year: the first batch made with spring milk has a fresher flavour; the Christmas batch is sweeter. It has protected status and can only be made with pasteurised milk in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, by a strictly controlled method (cheese made in Stilton itself, the Cambridgeshire village the cheese is named after, cannot be called Stilton). Stichelton is made in Nottinghamshire by the same method as Stilton but with unpasteurised milk and the original Stilton starter culture, not used in official Stilton manufacture since 1989. Stichelton may be the original name of the village of Stilton, just as this may be closer to the original Stilton recipe.
The plants that we now associate with Christmas, that we use to deck our halls and to stand and giggle underneath, are remnants of an older celebration of the longest night and the shortest day: Yule, the winter solstice, midwinter. Midwinter celebrations were bountiful, fire-filled and optimistic, announcing the returning of the light. Although it does not feel like it now, from here on the days begin to get incrementally longer, and that is a thing that feels worth celebrating even in these days of 24-hour corner shops. It must have felt like a lifeline being thrown then.
The wreath acts as another reminder that this is a pivotal moment and that this darkness and cold will pass
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Evergreens symbolised life at a time when most plants have dropped their leaves and all around looks dead, and so they became integral to this festival of continuity and reassurance. Berries represented fertility, and so were also revered at this most barren of moments. Holly was thought a female plant and mistletoe male, and they were often hung together, hence the kissing. Christmas wreaths themselves are also extremely ancient, dating back at least to Roman times when they decorated homes during Saturnalia, the Roman festival of midwinter. The wreath is thought to be symbolic of the wheel of the year (the word ‘yule’ may come from the Nordic word for wheel, houl), and acts as another reminder that this is a pivotal moment and that this darkness and cold will pass. Hang this heartening wheel of evergreens on your door to welcome guests, then eat and drink and celebrate the hope and promise that these dark days bring.
Quince and hazelnut mincemeat
You can use this straight away, but the earlier you make it the better, and it will of course keep for years. Quince is hard and astringent when raw, only turning coral-hued and yieldingly sweet and aromatic when slowly cooked, making this recipe slightly fussier than most. If you don’t have the time or the inclination (or the quinces), you can make this with raw apples, but the quince is worth the trouble.
Makes 6–8 jars
To poach the quince
Pared zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 l water
1 kg quince
1 piece star anise
1 vanilla pod
5 tbsp honey
For the mincemeat
400 g currants
400 g sultanas
400 g seedless raisins
200 g blanched, toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
100 g chopped candied peel
225 g soft brown sugar
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
250 g shredded suet
200 ml apple brandy/cognac
To poach the quince, first put the lemon juice and lemon zest into the water in a large saucepan. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin of the quince, then quarter it with a sturdy knife and remove the core and any bruised or damaged bits. Drop the pieces into the liquid as you work. Add the rest of the poaching ingredients and bring to the boil, then simmer for about an hour, until the quince has turned pink. Leave to cool completely, then dice the quince, not too fine (do not throw away the cooking liquid as it makes a beautiful syrup for champagne cocktails or pouring over ice cream).
In a large bowl combine the quince with the rest of the ingredients. Stir, cover and leave to sit for a few hours. Stir again and pack into sterilised jars and seal.
Roasting chestnuts (properly)
Chestnuts roasted on an open fire should be soft and yielding, the struggle to crack them open rewarded by the steaming innards: nuttiness combining with comforting carbohydrate, all tinged with a sweet smokiness. In reality they are often burned on one side and raw on the other, and you have put your poor thumbs through some amount of pain and scorching for nothing but disappointment. It is less romantic, but they cook far better in an oven, and can then be finished off over the fire for a bit of characterful charring if you like. Preheat your oven to 200°c/390°f/gas mark 6.
Crack open the skins while they are still hot, and eat smeared with cold butter and sprinkled with salt
Check over your chestnuts and throw away any that have holes in them, then lay each flat side down and cut a cross right through the skin on its back. Wash them well (this allows a little water in, which helps separate skin from nut), and put them into a baking tray to roast for about 30 minutes, shaking to turn them half way through. (If you must cook over the fire, do so over low embers for at least this length of time, and shake frequently to move them around.) Crack open the skins while they are still hot, and eat smeared with cold butter and sprinkled with salt.
Photo by Sébastien Bourguet on Unsplash
Look out for:
Both male and female robins are singing. By mid-January they will have paired up with a mate and the females will fall quiet.
Tawny owls are also marking out territory, and can be heard in woodlands making the distinctive ‘two-wit’ and ‘two-woo’ calls.
Holly berries are at their most ripe and beautiful if they have not been eaten by the birds yet. Ivy is flowering and providing pollen for the few bees that are around. Look out for bunches of mistletoe, now easily seen high in the branches of bare apple and lime trees.
Teasel heads are all dried out now and are looking sculptural in road verges. They are also a perfect source of food for goldfinches, which can reach the seeds within with their slender beaks.
Estuaries are full of waders all winter, providing a reliable source of food and never freezing because of the sea. Kingfishers and otters move to estuaries now for the same reasons.
Foxes do not hibernate and may be seen more frequently in cities as leaner food sources lead to boldness.
This month breathtaking murmurations reach their peak. Murmurations are the gatherings and swooping of thousands of starlings on winter evenings above reed beds. They begin to amass in November, but reach their greatest numbers this month and next, with up to 100,000 birds in some flocks. In the early evening, just before dusk, the birds take to the sky in such masses that the sky is blackened. They then move in seemingly coordinated swirls and swoops until the sky is dark, when they settle down to roost for the night. It may be a way of fending off predators or of keeping warm on the cold nights.
The Almanac by Lia Leendertz is published by Unbound
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