THIS LITTLE FELLOW has been greeting me each evening when I go out to feed the geese as the dusk comes down. As I close the door of the goose shed, having put them to bed for the night, I turn around and find him sitting just inches away from me in the branches, hoping for crumbs of goose food before dark. His quiet little round red self hops friendly, so close to me I almost believe he'll eat from my hand. And then without fail Macha comes hurtling up to me, panting with squirrel-chasing enthusiasm and the little robin is gone. Some days I wonder whether he thinks I'm setting a dog trap for him, but he keeps returning, a familiar flame of feather burning in the icy winter grey.
There are robin-like nuggets of fire nestled in all the cold branches of winter these days. Sometimes it's a red berry alone in the frosted hedge. Sometimes it's Christmas lights hanging in our homes amongst the ever-greenery to remind us of the seed of spring light germinating deep in the death of winter. Sometimes it's winter revels in pubs and village halls on wild and wet dark Dartmoor nights. Sometimes it's making tincan lanterns with women friends around a soup-steaming, baby-giggling kitchen table as the indigo dark begins to creep in beyond the windows not long after lunchtime. Sometimes it's devotions of spirit that celebrate a child of light being born to a mother of earth in the darkest part of the year. Sometimes it's standing amongst friends and strangers in a stone circle up on the moor and watching the sunrise of winter solstice herald the once more lengthening days.
This season has been hard. Many folk we know have been going through troubles and sorrows. The whole country goes into a collective frenzy as Christmas approaches. We must buy and buy and sell and sell and rush and rush until we are a twitching tense knot of maniacal stress; but we mustn't rest, we must rush more to prepare in time for ... for what? Christmas day comes just the same as all the other days, but when it does, we cannot enjoy that fabled hearth and home time, because we are too strung out by the enormous surge of collective consumerism that is so all-pervading, you cannot help but feel it even in these winding Devon lanes, far from the high streets of doom.
Of course what we have now is a kind of warped parody of the once real preparations for hibernation and celebrations of light within the long darkness. This year I felt a particular incongruity between my body's call to tuck in and be still as the days got shorter and the outward necessity to rush about even more than usual. It felt like madness. I enjoy giving gifts to loved ones, and I love the magic of winter - the snow and antlers, the fireside and bells and stories - but those things have almost been mass-produced into inanity and I am sad that children are being taught to clamour for plastic over wonder.
Our winter doings were a jumble of busyness which I struggled with, and yet the busyness bore good magic, and that was a joy. I have just returned from London where I have been looking after my parents who were struck down with illness at a hard time this Christmas. Now I'm back home and a new year has begun! As I unpick the city from my clothes, and retread the Devon lanes, I reflect on the nuggets of red that we hung in the cold winter branches of this season at the end of the world.
Back in November, preparations began for winter markets and Advent craft fairs. My greetings cards sold well, and my prints were much admired in their rustic handmade recycled frames by David Winter. Many conversations were had; ivy and holly and candlelight adorned my wares. In one of our local village halls, my stall was juxtaposed most incongruously with a portrait of the queen and a painting of the D-Day landings hanging on the wall just behind my somewhat less patriotic array of otherworldly peasants!
As the year marched on, music called and gigs were gigged. Krasa performed acoustically in a small local pub where chestnuts were being roasted over the open fire.
We were warmly received, and I could add another performance to my (hopefully nerve-diminishing) list of musical achievements! And we handed out more flyers for the fast approaching Feast of Fools!
December got wetter and wetter and roads changed into rivers, fields into lakes, and we were glad to live on a hill. Nevertheless, the business of organising a gig had to be attended to, and Suzi and I busied ourselves with flyering the villages and towns of Dartmoor, printing tickets, arranging people to bake hundreds of mince pies, organising sound and lighting equipment and set lists and all the chattels of transforming a slightly echoey and austere village hall into a wonderland for a winter evening.
To begin with we gathered with a handful of women friends at Suzi's cozy and beautiful home to make lanterns out of old tin cans we'd been collecting, and ragged bunting. It was a lovely afternoon around the kitchen table. Children took turns to sleep and breastfeed and watch the banging and snipping in fascination.
We had filled the tin cans with water and frozen them in preparation for banging patterns of decorative holes into them; it stops them crumpling, as well as leaving a beautifully striated cylinder of ice afterwards, decorated internally with hundreds of tiny shock fractures.
The kitchen table was littered with teapots and mugs, chocolate, baby toys and tincans and hammers and awls. Some of us tore fabric for bunting.
And then we had soup.
By the time the 23rd of December had reached us, all that needed to be done was done. We just had to transform the village hall (not to mention squeeze in a last rehearsal!).
In the afternoon, we decorated the hall, and bands arrived with instruments and wires and the first threads of a magic evening were woven.
Large amounts of fabric can do wonders to an uninviting space. And so we knotted and we draped and we hung and we decked. There were fairy lights and ivy, and tincan lanterns (of course), and there was bunting galore. We were very lucky to have papier-mâché animal heads created by Rob Mason watching the proceedings from around the walls. The ceiling was hung with a parachute, and the sound checks continued. My belly got tighter as the hour approached. I'd never played through microphones before in such a small group. The doorkeepers donned masks and prepared the float. And the audience started to arrive...
In the end it was an utterly beautiful evening. Tom told the ancient Irish Celtic tale of the Birth of Lugh in three parts, between the three bands' performances. There were heroes and heroines, horrible foes and great adventures, and we were transported on that dark wet Dartmoor night to a land long ago when a light-child was born.
The different musics of all three bands made for an excellent mix. Ale and mince pies were quaffed. And everyone had a thoroughly wonderful evening. After our set was done, I could relax a little and enjoy myself too. Though I was too overwhelmed to take any more photos than these of our Oxford friends beginning to play.
Right at the very end of the evening, a little before midnight, Telling the Bees ended their (frankly exquisite) set by removing their microphones and stepping off the carpet-stage to play their last song amongst the audience. And there came then that beautiful tipping point in the evening where everyone moved as one, and an old magic was unleashed.
Two days before this, we had risen before dawn and made our way up onto Dartmoor to a particular Bronze Age stone circle not far away. We didn't know who we'd meet there, but went with a thermos of hot chocolate to welcome in the sun on this winter solstice morning of the day the world might be ending.
We arrived to find folk standing with the stones looking expectantly toward the eastern horizon. There were many familiar faces there, and we felt blessed to live in a place where these old rites are honoured in a thoroughly un-trite and unplanned way. We sang some songs, and someone traced the shadows of the stones as the sun rose on a large piece of paper on the ground.
When the sun came, the moor blushed pink and everyone cheered.
We exchanged greetings with people we'd not seen in a while, and then we all walked down again to eat breakfast together at a friend's house, leaving the moorland winds to blow our prayers into the new era.
At home, our devotions have been those of woodburner and book and oven. A fallen lichen-etched Elder branch holds our winter trinkets and lights, ivy creeps about the walls between paper greetings from friends afar, and Macha sleeps on the rug.
It is quiet here now. Soon the year will begin in earnest; indeed only yesterday I could have sworn I smelt spring in the air. But perhaps this is just a brief scent-promise before we are battered by more storm-throes for the rest of winter.
I have been thinking on the various ways this dark season is celebrated and sung through in different spiritualities. Whilst I cannot share the Christian beliefs about Christmas in a concrete way, I can find truth in story and remember the magic of stable and manger in the same way I remember the magic of gingerbread house and talking cat. The beauty for me is in the sacred, which is why I find icons so moving and so beautiful. Devotional music of all creeds cracks open the winter heart-kernel in the same way, and in that sense, we can all share the same prayers.
Here as you hold the hurts and plans and memories and wonders of the year just gone and the year to come in the quiet place before the coming of January's storms, I offer you the beautiful Orthodox chant of the monastery of Valaam, which is situated on an archipelago in the Republic of Karelia up between Russia and Finland. Against old photographs of their simple life and in their unique harmonies, the monks sing to the continuer of life: god who is a woman.