Monthly Archives: December 2020

Solstice – a haiku

It is almost Solstice, the day in December that means the most to me: the shortest day, the gradual turn towards the light.

I will celebrate with a short meditation, then some music and mulled wine. I send you warm wishes for Solstice, Christmas and for the New Year. Thank you all for your support and your comments. On Sunday 3 January I will post again.

The marvellous illustration is by gdizerega on Pixabay, and the winter solstice haiku by Matthew Paul. It was first published in The Haiku Calendar 2014.

winter solstice
the street-cleaner picks up                              
a glass half full

Winter Migrants

At a recent workshop I read from Winter Migrants, a collection by Tom Pickard. I saw the title and cover in an email from Carcanet, the publishers, and knew I would have to get the book. A short sequence and individual poems bookend a selection from Fiends Fell Journals.

This is a poetry-diary, or haibun, composed over the decade Pickard lived alone on the wind-blown North Pennines. The two dozen entries cover the period June 2003 – February 2004. They vary in length from a few lines to a page. Here is an example, showing Pickard’s sharp vision and economy of language:

12 February

Late at night, without a coat and the wind still raging, an old woman from the cottage hospital in Alston, banging on the deserted mortuary window, demanding entry – convinced she is home.

Water drapes over worn flattened rocks,
smooth as curtains.

Birds appear frequently in the Journal – an alert kestrel, a growking raven, snipes, curlews – and in the title sequence – the Solway estuary where winter migrants gather / in long black lines.

Heron, Annette Niemeyer, via Pixabay

This is also from Fiends Fell Journals:

A heron
criss-crosses the lashing syke,
fast, with sudden thaw,

its spiky tread sunk
in unscuffed snow

patient
and hungry as death

no inkling of urgency
in its measured step

close, almost overlapping,
at the water’s edge

St Nicholaas 2020

St Nicholaas, Public Domain, Pixabay

St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …

Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.

St Nicholaas and Zwarte Piet, olliebrands0 via Pixabay


The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.

Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.

The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…

St Nicholaas sweets and cookies, nietjuh via Pixabay

Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!

St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother.
He wants to know: Why is it so much bother

for you to take a turn at doing the dishes?
The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!

Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate:
Why do you always leave it so late?

The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep.
Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!

Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve
and he’ll send you some presents and his love.