A cold, cold Christmas

We’re in the Scottish Highlands for Christmas this year, and it’s brought a sudden, sharp awareness of what winter is like in a world that’s not just more rural, but in some ways more like the past than my normal life in a small town in Hertfordshire. Not that it’s extreme weather here – on Christmas morning it was about minus four to eight centigrade, and the snow is probably no more than a couple of inches deep. But the snow here is beautiful, in a way that it seldom is (or seldom remains) in Hitchin, not the grubby slush or compacted ice you get with rapid clearing away and lots of cars and trampling feet, but a crunchy white of tiny crystals that sparkle in the picturesque way you normally only get on Christmas cards or calendars. And in the night-time (and there’s a lot of night-time), with no street lights you can see hundreds of stars.

On the morning of Christmas Eve we purchased the last cupcakes in Drumnadrochit, or at least the penultimate batch. It’s a sign of modern life that there even are cupcakes in Drumnadrochit, but it’s also a reminder of a way of life where you can’t necessarily purchase all the food you want, whenever you want, in a way that 24-hour supermarkets can make you forget. And when we were coming up here we had to consider that we couldn’t necessarily get access to shops at all if the snow did get heavy. Not that we would starve or even go hungry – not in a era of tinned food and freezers – but getting cut off for a brief while was and is a possibility, which would be very unlikely for where we normally live. There are places in southern England that do still have that risk – the village where I grew up in Sussex still occasionally becomes inaccessible, but not the six weeks or so with blocked roads in 1963 that my parents sometimes mentioned.

These things are a reminder of a world where winter and weather aren’t just an irritating disruption to normal, modern life, but forces that you expect to shape it, where you adapt to your circumstances rather than vice versa. None of what I’m experiencing would have seemed strange to many British (or even English) people even 30-40 years ago. Now, I suspect it is alien to many more of us.

But the point at which I felt in touch with an even older experience of winter was in the church service on Christmas morning. The tiny church by a frozen loch I was attending did have some heating, but my toes were still going numb by a quarter of an hour into the service. Central heating is one of the recent developments that takes our practical experience furthest from that of past history, but a stone church emphasises that even more. We were singing traditional carols, but I found myself in solidarity and empathy almost as much with 1500 years or more of feeling absolutely frozen in a church service. St Columba, Charlemagne, Victorian peasants and me, all probably wriggling our toes and wishing we could just get warm again. That’s real historical continuity for you.

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