Winter is a season like no other. The world of many plants and animals becomes a time of rest and hibernation. For humans, December is a time of intense activity as Christmas approaches. The drab world of winter cities is transformed by lights of elaborate design hanging across the streets, and shop windows are at their most colourful. Wreaths with red ribbons hang on doors of most houses, and decorations make their interiors festive and jolly. It is a time of putting up Christmas trees, a time of pine garlands, multicoloured tinsel, gold stars and sparkling baubles. It is a time of logfires and brisk walks after Sunday lunch. A huge Christmas tree is erected in Trafalgar Square. It is a yearly gift from Norway to Great Britain for our help in liberating their country during World War II. And it is an unbreakable link with the past. It is a time of reflection. After the Christmas celebrations comes January. This is the most significant month of the year as it has symbolised for millenia a new beginning. The end of the old and the start of the new.
The name January comes from Latin word, janua, which means a door. It isn’t only a door that moves back but is also a symbolic doorstep of going out and forward; it leads from yesterday and into an eagerly anticipated future. Janus was a Roman god who protected the doorsteps of human abodes and the gates of the cities. He was a symbol of the shadowy line that divides yesterday’s past from the future of tomorrow. He had two faces, one looking back and one looking forward, on the same head. That is why in January we pledge to refrain from our ‘sinful’ drinking, smoking, overeating and other bad habits for at least a month, but come February and our good intention becomes just that, good intentions only, at least for a few of us.
The winter’s cold taut air and lack of sun slows life. At this time all the birds that have not migrated need our help. The bird table should have as much variety as possible – seeds of all sorts, raisins, dried mealworms, lots of fat and any crumbs of our soft foods. One of the most popular songs that Mary Poppins sings is: ‘Feed the birds, feed the birds…’, and as the film is shown on TV each Christmas, it makes children put food out, and brings ‘a smile to birds’ cold faces.’
In northern European countries, winter is white with the blinding whiteness of the snow set against the horizon, where the iron-cast sky merges with the frost-bound earth. Even in our technologically advanced age, there is great delight to be a part of a kulig, a sledge cavalcade. Several large sledges cushioned with sheepskins offer comfortable seating for the revellers. The horses, usually in pairs, and the jubilant coachmen shouting ‘Who-ha!’, glide at full speed among the flurry of snow under the sledge runners. It is winter’s equivalent of summer gondola trips in Venice. Winter brings skiing sports and the Olympics. On lakes, natural or man-made, scores of people practise ice-skating. In Finland and Russia some brave souls go for a morning swim in ice-cold water, and surprisingly live to tell how invigorating and beneficial this experience is. All I can say is rather them than me!
Winter temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere fall well below 0 degrees Celsius. In London, during the time of Samuel Pepys, the Thames froze solid for a few months enabling people to walk across, set up market stalls and even enjoy this unusual happening. Water is affected not only by heat and cold but also by air pressure. Although clouds are obviously formed by evaporation, our high atmospheric pressure is the reason that the oceans or big rivers don’t evaporate away totally. Water has other odd properties. It is at its heaviest at 4 Celsius degrees and ice floats on water lightly even though is solid. Most people think of water as a liquid to swim in or to drink but the two separate elements of which it is composed exist as two gases: oxygen and hydrogen. The wonder of nature at its best.
The end of February is the beginning of winter’s end. By now the whole northern world yearns for the warmth of the sun and for the first sign of Spring – snowdrops. We know spring is well on its way when forsythia’s branches burst with an amazing display of masses of gold flowers. After that, the catkins buds are at the ready to welcome Spring, as much as we are.