The first day of winter

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The shift from autumn to winter is sometimes imperceptible.  I will suddenly notice that all the trees are bare.  The ground will become muddy with rotting leaves and the cold will creep up on me.  There is no consensus about when winter begins.  Meteorologists package the year up into neat quarters, with 1st December designated as the first day of winter.  For astronomers, it is the winter solstice.  But for me, this year, winter begins on the last Saturday in November in Manchester.  It is the day after my father-in-law’s funeral and I wake early to an unearthly landscape of white mist.  There is a surreal hush.  Trees are no more than shadows in the fog and ice crisps the foliage.

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There is a path on the edge of the Manchester ship canal that is a tiny oasis among housing estates.  Only a day before, the blazing sunset lit up the last golden leaves and I watched three ring-necked parakeets flutter across the canal, the first I have ever seen in the wild.  But this morning, winter has the canal in its grip.  Scores of Canada Geese huddle silently on the bank.  Mist moves in lazy coils along the water.  A flock of black headed gulls cavorts in a garland of steam.  Ice and sun have melted the landscape into vapour and echoes.

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As we drive back north, fog shrouds the motorway.  The sun has gone out, casting the world in grey shadow.  The road is lined by the rise of moors and the dip of valleys.  I know that there are towns and buildings in these valleys, but today there is no evidence of that.  They are nothing more than bowls of dense white mist, like eerie seascapes.  But we emerge from the mist to the afternoon sun, which kindles the remnants of autumn.  Beeches shimmer with copper leaves.  Apple trees droop with red and yellow fruit.

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Back home, most of the trees are bare.  The leafscape has turned from gold to burnt orange and umber.  Leaves now squelch rather than crackle beneath my feet.  But just as the autumn show is almost over, the last wild cherry blazes.  It has been slow to give up its gifts.  Usually I can pluck sweet cherries from its branches in summer, but this year they were sour, left to rot on the tree even by the birds.  Now it is a beacon among the skeletons.  The halo of fallen leaves around its base glows against the frosted grass.

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Today is National Tree Dressing day, an annual celebration of the importance of trees in our lives.  Communities are encouraged to tie ‘leaves’ with messages of thanks to a tree.  As the trees undress, we re-dress them.  The celebration draws on old traditions of adorning trees.  In my post The Shoe Tree I wrote about the ways we dress trees and down by the canal path last week, I discovered another: a memorial tree, dressed to commemorate the life of a man who had died there.

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But today I will leave the trees to their nakedness.  I’m dressing a different kind of tree, though it’s all part of the same tradition.    My Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the death of winter.  It is a reminder that when the earth seems to be little more than bones, life still stirs, waiting to be re-born.  Trees reflect the transience of life in their seasonal changes: the brief joy of spring blossoms, the plenty of summer fruits and the excitement of autumn finery.  Then they show us death, with their winter skeletons.  As I dress the tree, I recall the many times I have done this before.  I think of all the other people doing what I am doing now.  And I think of those communities re-dressing the trees that are important to them.  Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.

96 thoughts on “The first day of winter

    • Thanks Cynthia – don’t apologise, I love them! I rarely see them in such numbers and they were so quiet it was quite a surprise to see so many of them on the banks, they obviously didn’t appreciate the icy water the way the gulls did 🙂

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  1. Your photographs are so beautiful, Andrea. Naked trees let us see through and discover the scenes that are normally hidden behind the foliage. You came here for a sad reason, but the Nature brings comfort.

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  2. Andrea, such an evocative post and I’m sorry to hear of your father-in-law’s death. (I was very fond of my father-in-law ~ we sort of understood each other more than one might have expected.)
    Puppy Stan has done away with Christmas trees in our house ~ maybe three but very much puppy when it comes to novelties.

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  3. I particularly liked your allegory to trees of life and trees of death – and that is what the change of seasons is all about. A very lovely and intimate post. Happy holidays. Harlon

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  4. am so sorry to learn of your father-in-law’s passing. my condolences.
     
    leaves on the ground are soggy and muddy here, too. most trees are bare – but i must admit that even in their bareness, they are already proudly bearing next year’s buds in a generous display on every branch and twig… always amazing how one season flows into another.
     
    and i love Christmas too. my tree has been up for a couple of weeks… 🙂

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  5. Andrea, your wonderful, evocative writing transports me back to last week’s heavy fog in Somerset just as you describe here. Only the day before, the trees were alight with the flame of autumn! How amazing to see ring necked parakeets in the wild, in Manchester! But, I am so very sorry to hear of the loss of your father in law. Through the swirling fog and your many thoughts, how wonderful to return home to dress your Christmas tree. I love every sentence here Andrea, but this one jumped out at me: ‘Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.’ Just beautiful… xxx

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  6. I too am sorry about the death of your father-in-law.
    Beautiful words Andrea, that conjure up such wonderful images. Most of our trees are bare now after the frosts and wind we have had. I love to see their bare branches and their black silhouettes against the sky.

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  7. Andrea, This is a truly marvelous post. I would love to have walked with you through the winter landscape. We are about to put up our tree, but who know when it will be decorated…..

    I hope your loss is as kind as such an event can be.

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  8. National Tree Dressing Day – what a fabulous idea!
    The only tree decoration I was aware of, Christmas aside, were the yellow ribbons for the safe return of hostages or service personnel.
    Thank you for creating such a lovely image.
    Wishing you much joy of your Dressed Trees!

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  9. Oh Andrea, sweet Andrea, I am sorry to hear of the passing of your father-in-law and I send a gentle hug your way… At the end of your post I felt like you had a sense of calmness and I think it is part of the healing process xx Thanks for making time for us and sharing your beautiful thoughts on winter ❤

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  10. Another wonderful description, Andrea! The topic of trees is important in our family. My bonus dad is a lover of trees. He is a passionate gardener who lives in Washington where things tend to grow well, and one reason he loves it there is the abundance of trees. He takes daily drives just to see them; they contribute to his well-being in a profound way. He was quite miserable when he lived down here in Southern California where I live, since he thrives in the rain and cool mists. Also, California is having a long-term tree crisis, as millions of trees have died or are in danger to the point that conferences are being held to find solutions. See the following for more information, if interested. http://countercurrentnews.com/2016/11/earth-crisis-102-million-dead-california-trees-unprecedented-modern-history-officials-say/#

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    • Thanks Carla, I can understand your bonus dad’s feelings, I don’t think I’d want to live in a place without trees – or the rain and mists! It’s a tragedy what is happening to the trees in California and very worrying in terms of what could come.

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      • Hi Andrea – It has been raining so much here, that I am hoping the trees are rejoicing! Lots of snow too, finally, in our mountains. I heard that the drought in Northern California is now officially over, and in the southern part of the state, it is about 50% over. Thankful!

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      • I’m very glad to hear that the drought is over or coming to an end, I’m sure those trees are rejoicing! Our winter has been relatively mild and dry since ‘the first day of winter’, we did have our first snowfall but the snow lasted for only a morning 🙂

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  11. I’ve never heard of this re-dressing the trees, but I love it, and I love trees. I admire their strength. Your words moved me. My heart is with you on your loss. Warm hugs coming your way.

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  12. Ooh, I love trees too. They’re so animated. RIght now, leaves have all fallen and the branches are bare — they seem vulnerable right now. Not the evergreens though. We’ll be putting up our Christmas tree next weekend, which seems to be the official sign of the season. Even though I’ve decorated all around the house, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without that tree. 🙂

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  13. I love trees. Although living in London we have some fantastic plane trees opposite us and crows nest in them. We also have a great many magpies and today a huge thrush seeing off some blackbirds. The plane trees are such magnificent old survivors. No tree inside the flat yet but soon, soon …!

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  14. Andrea, I’m so sorry about the loss of your father-in-law. What a sad time, but you manage to shift to the cycle of life and tell us about a beautiful custom: National Tree Dressing Day. I’ve never heard of it, and I love it!!! I have reached the point that I would rather do this than even think of buying even one person a Christmas gift.

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  15. Your ponderings, your writing, is so lovely Andrea. Traditions of a funeral and the tree dressing, and the appearance of winter and geese, the disappearance of leaves, the workings of mist, all in the rhythms of life..thank you.

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  16. The seasons are remarkably good at keeping in time with our calendar 😉 ! But there are seasons of the soul, too, and they are more fluid and less accountable to calendar days. My condolences on the death of your father-in-law.

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  17. How very lovely, Andrea. I feel like I am standing by your side, by the canal’s side, the mist swirling around us. And how interesting that people dress trees other than those on their own property. We don’t see that here, though sometimes people will do small tributes at the side of the road where someone had died. I do love seeing trimmed Christmas trees in windows. For those moments at least, life seems simple again.

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  18. You’ve written a beautiful celebration of trees here. I’ve read and reread this post and will go back to it many times. I never knew how much I appreciated trees until the last few years. Now I actually even hug one every once in a while. They are living breathing beings that show us the beauty of the world – and even what is inside us- if we only look.

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  19. Andrea, This is a beautiful blog and once again you transported me from my world into the world you live in. I love trees and it breaks my heart when I see them cut down for clearances in order to build homes, etc. Whatever happened to build on a lot and taking into consideration where trees were and incorporate them into the location of the house. I know it’s commercialism but it still makes me upset. Tom and I also noted a large number of Christmas trees that hadn’t been sold this year. I think that may be because so many people have fake trees now, but so many trees are being wasted when our country is in the process of trying to reforest itself. I like the idea of celebrating a tree. This is the first time we’ve ever lived on a property wherein we had to plant the trees along with the regular landscaping.
    I do hope you and yours have a lovely holiday season. Your photography and words take me on a trip through your world each time I visit and I so enjoy it so much.
    All is still going well here. Tom and I were able to go out to dinner with friends last night and it was marvelous. We had such a good time. Of course, he’s in bed today, but that’s okay. He mentioned several times last night that it was so good to be out and about with friends once again. We are wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a great year ahead.

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  20. Andrea I love the stillness of winter, you have captured a world in slumber, if but for a short while. I made my tree out sticks last year and the kids wanted to use it again this year. All we have to do is wrap it in lights and the simplicity makes me smile. All the best for a cosy winter. Sweltering here in 37 degree heat and dreaming of Autumn.

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  21. Beautiful, as always- the images and the words! You enrich our lives so much!
    Sorry to know about your father-in-law passing away.
    As we ourselves grow older, deaths happen with more frequency- whether of older family members or public figures. Sad- but a fact.
    It must be very cold now, where you live. Saw on BBC that some cities in Europe are having minus 30C temperatures! Unimaginable for someone who has lived entirely in the Torrid Zone. 🙂

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    • Thanks Sylvia 🙂 Yes, the losses do come more frequently as we get older. It’s actually been quite a mild winter for us so far, we haven’t had many frosts, but we have weather warnings for snow here today, so we’ll see – it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had proper snow in the area where I live.

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