Dear Readers, much like a snake swallowing its own tail we’ve arrived at December 2023 when we’ve only just left December 2022, which is most confusing (for me anyway). But I’ve enjoyed looking forward, and reminding myself of the changes that are likely to happen over the next twelve months. I will republish each of the almanac posts a week before the end of the previous month, as suggested by several readers, and will update them for anything that I’ve found out since they were first published. And if you can think of anything that should be included, be it an event or a natural occurrence, let me know and I’ll pop it in.
Things to Do
- It’s a little bit early for most places to have posted their Christmas 2023 activities, but some of the best things to do at this time of year are free – a brisk walk in some green space during the brief days always lifts the spirits.
- With the leaves gone from the trees, it’s well worth borrowing some binoculars and going out for a spot of birdwatching – there are a lot of winter visitors to see, including the brambling which crops up in parks and gardens all over the place.
- Have a look at the plant catalogues and sites online, early December (before the Christmas mayhem starts) and after the Big Day are great times to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to start making some plans. If money is tight, seeds are always a good bet for cheering the place up, and if you or someone you know is a member of the RHS you can get up to 15 packets of seeds gathered from their gardens for a tenner.
Plants for Pollinators
- The RHS’s plant for December is Mahonia, and I can see why – it flowers for a long time in the middle of winter, it smells great, and although it’s an awkward, spiky plant it’s very forgiving of heavy soil, shade and neglect. In particular they are recommending Mahonia japonica, but I’ve seen bees on the other varieties too.
- Winter-flowering honeysuckle should still be in flower, along with stinking hellebore, and gorse may be in flower too.
- December is the moment when all sorts of unusual birds might pop into the garden if there’s bad weather – I only ever see siskins when it’s snowing, for example (they’ve become ‘snow birds’ to me.
- The first winter for many birds is the crucial time – if they can get through to spring, they will probably go on to breed. It can be a sad time, though, with many birds succumbing to cold and lack of food, especially those who don’t visit gardens. This is a peak month for finding dead birds in the garden (though with bird flu this year, it’s been terrible for many areas)
- That song that you hear on an iron-hard morning is probably a robin – robins establish their pair bonds during December (normally), although they won’t actually breed until the spring. How do you know that you’ve got a pair of robins? If they’re feeding within a few metres of one another without beating one another up.
- If you’re able to get out to some wetlands, December is the best month to see goldeneye ducks, surely some of the most handsome of our winter visitors.
- Similarly, if you’re close to the Wash or Morecombe Bay, the number of knots (small wading birds) can put on a show that’s every bit as exciting as the more well-known starling murmurations, as they take to the air to avoid the incoming tide that covers the mudflats where they feed. You can have a look at a lovely film of them here. Worth a trip to Norfolk, I think!
- The bad weather seems to bring wagtails into closer contact with people too – there’s a pied wagtail that I only ever see in bad weather outside our local Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there was a grey wagtail beside the pond a few winters ago. These birds prefer to be close to water in the summer, but the pied wagtail in particular is spending more time in town, and there are massive roosts in the street trees in some parts of the country.
Plants in Flower
- Precious few, but around these parts (North London) you might see hazel catkins, winter jasmine with its yellow flowers, witch hazel, some varieties of daphne with their exquisite scent, and the 365 days-per-year flowers of the daisy family and yarrow.
Things to Watch/Listen Out For
- The tiny muntjac deer is inconspicuous for most of the year, but with the foliage so sparse you might catch a glimpse in December. There are rumours of a muntjac in East Finchley, so watch this space!
- If you look at a London plane tree, you should see that it has its very own Christmas baubles, in the shape of the round fruits (technically called achenes). The fruits are full of tiny seeds that are prone to irritate the nasal passages of anyone with hayfever, but for now they just hang there, looking festive
- Look out for masses of hibernating snails (bless them), all sealed up in their shells and just waiting for the warmer weather. I often find them tucked away under the overhanging edges of my cheaper flower pots. Slugs, on the other hand, bury themselves away underground.
- Cemeteries are great places to look for hibernating ladybirds, who often find the crevices in old gravestones or tombs a perfect place to hide from the weather. Some, however, seem to like the public conveniences – not so picturesque, but presumably a few degrees warmer.
- It’s not a good time of the year for mothing, but you might see December moths attracted to light – they don’t feed at this time of the year (so don’t have to worry about flowers) but they are looking for a mate.
- Very few UK animals turn white in the winter, but if you’re out and about you might, if you are very, very lucky, see a stoat that’s turned into an ermine (i.e. white with a black tip to the tail). I recently saw a ceremonial robe edged with ermine, and there must have been the skins of fifty of these little animals, judging by the tail tips.
- Another animal that goes white is the mountain hare, now only found in the Highlands and parts of southern Scotland, the Peak District and a few islands. The animal was widely culled as a threat to grouse moors (don’t get me started) but this was banned in 2020. Hopefully this will give this enigmatic animal time to recover.
- The December full moon is on 27th December, and is known as the Oak Moon, the Full Cold Moon or the Moon After Yule.
- 7th December – Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) begins at sundown
- 22nd December – Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year)
- 25th December – Christmas Day
- 26th December – Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day
- 31st December – New Year’s Eve
Thanks so much for these 12 days…I have saved them to my reading list and will reread them each month!
Thanks so much for these 12 days…I have saved them to my reading list and will re read them each month
I’ve enjoyed your almanac, thanks. Glad to hear you’ll post again each month, I was panicking that I wouldn’t remember to look again!
These have been great, such a lot of research and such an interesting range of topics. I have Made Notes!
PS same experience with siskin, regular visitors in the recent cold snap, not around now.
This almanac has been an absolute pleasure. I’ve spent my life wishing I were English, or at least could move there, so this detailed report of each month’s happenings makes me happy and a strange sort of “homesick” for a place I haven’t lived. It’s been a literary home for me, I guess.
While reading this entry, I was also watching an American Robin in my garden, energetically throwing the dried maple leaves about, in search of worms and other snacks. It’s one reason I leave the leaves!
Your blog has only made me more firmly commit to “lazy” gardening, in which I don’t do much tidying until spring temps have allowed everything to come out of hibernation.
I wish that Americans were as dedicated to assisting wild things in the way Brits are. My neighbors are still dumping herbicides on their monoculture laws, hiring mow-and-blow services that give no quarter insects or small animals, and poisoning rodents and insects, which larger animals and birds then eat. It’s maddening!
Thank you for making a place of peace and wonder (and poetry!). Happy New Year to you.
I saw a lovely bird this December that I hadn’t seen in my garden before; the Varied Thrush. We’d been having a cold snap and this shy bird was rather desperate, I think. I was putting out bird feed and it was a pleasure to see this bird chowing down in the ice and snow.
Thank you, Old Bugwoman, your almanac has been fascinating, and I look forward to reading each post again at the start of every month. You mentioned that you were inspired by Old Moore’s Almanac, which your dad bought every year. My dad used to have Whitaker’s Almanac – I don’t know if that was a rival publication to Old Moore’s, or whether it was something completely different.
I think it might have been Whitaker’s Almanac you know – it had much of the same stuff, i.e. phases of the moon, tides, planting times etc and predictions! You used to be able to buy it in newsagents towards the end of the year (and actually I seem to remember people selling it door to door….)