Winter is upon us. The first of December dawned sunny with a hard
frost. We can see the sun on the peaks nearly two hours before it reaches
the village. No salt or gravel is spread on the village streets and it
was slippery going to the dairy to buy cream and cheese. The puddles had
a thick layer of ice. Some weeks earlier we had all been excited by waking
to find the village covered in a light snow covering. The eastern chain
of mountains formed a gleaming backdrop to the village. The sheep, still
out of doors in pastures amid the houses, grazed unconcerned. Now all the
animals are inside for the winter. When the temperature is below freezing
the warmth of the cows within makes the byre roof steam in the sunshine.
The cows walk through the yard between byre and milking shed where they
wait, lowing, their breath condensing.
November was the month of preparation. All fences were removed, the wire
and the stakes. Tall stakes with orange tops were placed along the roads
to guide snow clearing. Against the houses, sheltered by the eaves, the
wood is neatly piled. What cannot go there is built into shapes like haystacks
and covered with corrugated iron. Now the sap is no longer rising, timber
is being cut and brought through the village on huge lorries. The sawmill
is working flat out. In the afternoon the old people play cards.
St. Nicholas came on the 6th December. Musicians accompany him. He rides
a donkey and brings toys for the good children. He has two men with birches
to whip the naughty ones. The village had been decorated for his arrival.
Children made little effigies of him from ends of wood; a fir tree has
been cut in the forest and brought to the front of the church by tractor.
It was raised with much discussion and crawling under the lower branches
to fix the base and simply decorated with lights including a big star on
the top. Other villages in the valley have all the gables of the buildings
outlined in lights. In the town there is a Christmas market. The stalls
are log cabins and hot wine is on sale. It is the time of Christmas concerts.
The local choirs dressed in costume, sing a capella in the churches traditional
melodies, or more ambitious programmes. Afterwards hot wine or spiced tea
is served in the church porch.
For ten days the cold weather persisted. Some days we had frost and sunshine,
some days we were below the fog producing stratus, at other times right
in it. Snow is very local, falling in one valley and not in the next. The
freezing level may be at 900 metres here and further down the valley at
600 metres. Every frost encrusted leaf and twig gleams, in the fog, or,
should the fog lift, sparkles in the sunlight before the ice melts. The
solitary oaks, graceful lines of birches are magnificent. Flocks of small
birds are busy among the trees on the river banks. The sun may only disperse
the fog in late afternoon. Low veils of mist persist through which the
sun diffuses and the valley is tinged with soft light. Sky and the snowy
mountain tops are pink at sunset. At night the moon reigns over a starry
17th December 2002