I love that week between Christmas and new year’s day, although I’m never quite sure what to call it. ‘Christmastide’ seems a little forced as an expression, and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, whilst being overlong and unwieldy, also refers to a much longer period. ‘Twixmas’, a name coined by the travel industry in order to flog short breaks into a traditionally quiet time, is clearly too ghastly to be of use to anyone other than a travel agent or journalist. Whether this time has its own name or not, it certainly has a distinct feeling; with the first seconds of Boxing Day morning, something seems to pass, and a new mood descends for the next few days.
Boxing Day, barely two degrees above zero, and I’m on my hands and knees in the garden, attempting to rescue the edge of the vegetable patch from the clutches of the lawn while the cold ground freezes all sensation from my muddy knee. It’s the perfect antidote to the bustle of Christmas – the noise, the stresses, the motorway driving – it’s wonderful to catch up with the family, but it’s ever so nice to be home again. Not that it’s exactly quiet out here. Once, I had entertained romantic notions of the bleak, hushed stillness of the winter landscape, with nothing but the drip drip of melting icicles to shatter the silence until the first bird of spring. I’m not quite sure how that idea got into my head, particularly when I consider the number of our avian friends that migrate to this part of the UK from the continent in search of a relatively mild winter. Today, the starlings are deafening and, while my gardening activity is pleasingly solitary, I’m not short of company; robins, blackbirds and collared doves all drop in from time to time to check on my progress, while our resident jackdaws wheel around the rooftop and hop about between the chimney stacks, ack-acking all the while.
Mahonia seems to have found its way into the average British garden by means of some terrible mistake. For most of the year it stands about stoically, back to the wall, looking stately and rather prickly – like a sentry whose presence you are grateful for, but whose existence you can more or less ignore. But in late November, at the very moment when most people are barricading the back door against the onset of winter, it starts to do its thing, flinging out sprays of acid yellow flowers in a desperate attempt to attract some attention, and come Christmas week it will still be going strong.