Cars choke the roads in metal ribbons, people rushing, doing last minute shopping and preparations. In our house, we joke about Christmas being ‘the end of the world’. The shops are only closed for a day, but it may as well be Armageddon, as the shelves are stripped bare in a strange kind of frenzy. I allow myself a smile of relief, as Winston and I meander past the shoppers, trapped in their vehicles and some semblance of what they feel Christmas should be. We turn off the road, away from it all into the Dene. The Dene is empty when we arrive, and we see only two other people in the time we’re there. It strikes me as sad that the roads are full, while the green space – the breathing space – is empty.
I find Christmas Eve the most magical day of the holidays. It is a day steeped in possibilities. A night filled with expectation. Magical stories of shepherds following angels, kings journeying from far off lands, a family-to-be seeking shelter in the darkness. Listening into the night for the tinkle of bells, bells that I am almost sure I can hear, as Father Christmas journeys high above the rooftops. The leaving out of carrots for the reindeer, a little something for Santa, listening again for his elusive arrival down the chimney.
My beliefs have changed since I was brought up on those stories, but Christmas is very much an eclectic festival for me. The birth of sun and earth at the solstice is woven inextricably with the story of the nativity, the story of Santa, the magic of song and story, memory and tradition. And Christmas Eve is not a time for rushing, it is a time for revelling in the waiting and the magic. So before the evening comes and I gather with my little family in a darkness warmed by fairy lights, I return to the earth, to imbibe the silence of nature.
There will be no white Christmas this year. Instead, autumn seems to have returned for a last fling. Warm golden light and the hint of pink in the clouds. A rising wind that doesn’t howl, but hums tunefully. The pond was a sheet of ice only a week ago, scores of ducks skating towards me looking for food. Now it is liquid light. The black headed gulls that usually rest on the jetty are elsewhere. Moorhens graze on the grass, mallards repose on the banks of the pond. I hear the chirrup of tits in the trees, the occasional bugle of a moorhen. The rushes are always beautiful at this time of year, tall golden stalks with seedheads of siena and fluff. They bow in unison in the gentling wind. A rustle of leaves whirls slowly on the grass, echoing autumn’s jig. The burn trickles, rippling, with slices of ochre where the sun catches it.
There is usually a hush, a kind of stillness in the dene. Not far away, those same cars stream over the bridge, but you don’t notice them here. It nestles in a bowl of tranquillity. There is often a sense that something unexpected might happen. And this is the kind of feeling I get from Christmas Eve. I know what I have planned. I know, roughly, what tomorrow will bring. But still, there are mysteries waiting in the darkness. Out there, in the land of magic, the land that we only catch glimpses of. Somewhere there is a magical land of elves and a man in a crimson coat. Somewhere there is a desert land in which a star guides kings. Somewhere, there is an underworld where a goddess lies resting after birthing the sun. You might say that none of these things exist, that they are myth, imagination, stories we tell to make ourselves feel better in the bleak midwinter. But to me, the truth of it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, for one night, I can believe in every one of them and glimpse just a shimmer of their magic.