Both my daughters have January birthdays and during both my pregnancies, people would grimace when I told them my due date. (It was an extra big grimace for Gwendolyn whose due date coincided with the inauguration of a certain racist, sexist, climate change denying meglomaniac…)
January has a reputation as a dull, dark and dreary month. It is a time when we are expected to scrimp and save, knuckling down to work and forgoing all pleasure in recompense for the excesses of the party season. It is assumed that anyone born during the month will have a hard time finding friends with whom to celebrate.
But in reality, the first month in the calendar is a magical time of year, filled with natural wonders and possibilities. And in my opinion, it’s a splendid time to have a birthday, for people of all ages. Here’s why:
It might snow…
Imagine awakening on your birthday to a world transformed by a blanket of snow. Or glancing out of the window during breakfast time as the first flakes of snow begin to fall. Those with summer birthdays are never going to spend their day having snowball fights, sledging or building snowmen but you might if you have a winter one. Even if you get just one or two snowy birthdays in your lifetime – the precious lasting memories will ensure that you always think fondly of your special day.
Don’t forget that other wintry weather, and not just snow, has its charms. You might enjoy a cold, crisp day with clear blue skies, or one cloaked in an ethereal hoar-frost. And even if you get rainy weather, you could have fun splashing in puddles, before snuggling by the fireside with a hot chocolate and a good book while the wind rattles the rooftops and the rain pelts the windowpanes.
You could go wassailing
Wassailing is a Pagan tradition of seeing in the New Year, centred around apple trees. Originating from the Old English ‘waes hael’ which means ‘be well’, a wassail was a way of blessing orchards to ensure a bountiful harvest, as well as spreading good wishes amongst friends and family. The tradition has many regional variations and can involve singing, Morris dancing, lighting bonfires, tree-dressing, poetry reading and storytelling, together with a good deal of spiced ale or cider. Historically taking place on Twelfth Night, nowadays wassailing events occur throughout January and into February.
For the last few years (except 2021, sadly) we have joined in the Wassail at the orchard in one of our local parks, Lordship Rec. The celebrations typically kick off with a lantern-making workshop at the community hub, followed by a lantern-lit procession through the park – clattering pots and pans to ward off evil spirits as we go – towards the Wassail tree, which is duly decorated and toasted. It’s then back to the hub to warm up and listen to a grandmother telling fairy tales. My oldest daughter, Gwendolyn first went wassailing on her second birthday, while my youngest, Josephine, came along when she was just eight days old.
There are tiny wonders all around
Who says you can’t celebrate your birthday with a walk and picnic in the woods just because it’s the middle of January? You just need to find a wood near you, wrap up warm and pack a flask of hot tea or soup. The Woodland Trust has some super ideas for a winter picnic, such as jacket potatoes kept warm in foil or pitta bread pockets filled with hot chilli from a thermos flask. It will taste extra yummy if eaten half way up a tree or inside a den built from fallen twigs and branches.
Now that all the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, it’s much easier to spot the myriads of microcosms and tiny woodland wonders all around you. You might see snowdrops emerging out of the frostbitten forest floor; animal tracks in the mud or snow; tooth or clawmarks on the bark of a tree; insects overwintering beneath the bark and all manner of funky fungi, moss and lichens.
In fact, mid to late winter is the best time to seek out some of Britain’s most weird and wonderful fungi. You might spot collared earthstars amongst the leaf litter, decaying tree stumps draped in velvet shank, or dead man’s fingers poking up through rotten logs. See BBC Winterwatch’s Winterwatchlist for what to look out for and where.
It’s all about birds
Winter offers a raft of opportunities to view a variety of birds up close, as more species venture into our gardens seeking food, water and shelter from the harsh weather. It’s for this reason that the RSPB holds its annual Big Garden Birdwatch during the last weekend of January every year. To take part you simply need to spend an hour counting the birds you see from your window or balcony and submit your findings online. The most commonly recorded birds include robins, blackbirds, house sparrows, woodpigeons, blue tits, starlings and goldfinches but by taking the time to sit still and observe you could spot a more elusive garden visitor such as a goldcrest or nuthatch.
Winter is also the only time of year to see certain migrant species from Scandinavia, Russia and continental Europe who visit our shores during the winter months, such as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings, or if you’re really lucky, waxwings.
It’s also the best time of year to catch one of Britain’s most spectacular natural wonders: murmuration. For reasons not entirely understood, thousands of starlings group together to perform spellbinding aerial acrobatics in unison before coming into roost.
And even if you don’t spot a rare bird or witness the marvel of murmuration on your special day, you are very likely to hear the nation’s favourite bird, the robin, sing its haunting winter song.
You can indulge in comfort food
Cooking and eating is so much fun at this time of year, and if you have a birthday to celebrate then there’s all the more reason to tuck into some hearty winter warmers. From classic comfort dishes such as chilli, macaroni cheese, shepherd’s pie or bangers and mash (all vegan in my case), to something more adventurous such as this miso mushroom lasagne, a lentil moussaka, or Jamie Oliver’s epic bean burger, the possibilities are endless.
If you are trying to eat seasonally to reduce your carbon footprint then the good news is that there are plenty of leafy greens and squashes about to experiment with. I recently received an onion squash in my veggie box delivery and cooked it up into this Moroccan stew from Abel&Cole. We’ve been eating our way through a red cabbage the size of a beach ball since Christmas. After using about a third for braised cabbage to accompany our Christmas dinner, I chucked some more into a tofu vegetable curry and shredded the remainder for pots of vegan winter slaw.
As for desserts, (which my sister, a medical doctor, once reliably informed me goes into a separate compartment in your stomach), think fig and caramel pudding, chocolate fondant pudding or my personal favourite – apple crumble and custard. Winter tastes good!
You can get creative with your party ideas
Having a winter birthday gives you the chance to get innovative when it comes to ways to celebrate. How about a pottery party, a tile making workshop, an ice skating disco or a scavenger hunt? If the weather forces children indoors, then perhaps they could put on a puppet or talent show? And if you are trying to be more thrifty or intentional with your spending during the New Year, then you could host a ‘swishing party’ where you swap used books and clothes with your friends and neighbours.
A January birthday may also present the opportunity to bag a good deal on theatre tickets or spa sessions, or enjoy a festive event at a cheaper price and without the crowds. For example, ‘Christmas at Kew’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London includes spectacular illuminations which remain on display until mid to late January every year (excepting 2021 for obvious reasons). The immersive light trail takes visitors on an enchanting journey through tunnels of twinkling lights and past beautifully illuminated trees and gardens. Fingers crossed I get to take my daughters to this one day; I’m sure they would love it!
Foxes take centre stage
Here in London, we share our streets, gardens and green spaces with an estimated 10,000 foxes. For large, predatory mammals with distinctive red fur, these creatures are remarkably quiet during most of the year. But come January, the still night air is pierced with the unearthly sounds of fox mating season. As you drift off to sleep tucked up in bed, it can be fascinating to tune into the eerie shrieks of vixens on heat, together with the rasping triple-barks and softer ‘woo-woo’ call of the dog foxes.
During an evening stroll at this time of year you could easily stumble right into the thick of the action. You may spot lone males roaming the streets in search of females; rival dog foxes tussling it out; or mating pairs nuzzling affectionately and frolicking through the streets. You may even catch foxes in the mating act, which can result in them becoming locked together, tail to tail for over an hour. To see such a sight on your birthday could surely be considered as nothing less than your own personal wildlife documentary.
It’s the best time for stargazing
According to some astronomers, winter is the best time of year for stargazing – all the most fascinating starscapes are on show and it gets dark early enough for small children to be able to see them before bedtime. Stargazing is ideally done before the moon is full and in areas with little light pollution, especially those with Dark Sky Discovery status. Apps such as Sky View, Star Walk or Google Sky Map are great tools for star identification, while these handy videos from The National Trust can help hone constellation spotting skills. The most recognisable constellations for beginners are Orion’s Belt and the Plough, but with a bit of practice, you’ll soon be able to discern Auriga, Gemini and the Winter Hexagon too.
You don’t need a telescope or even binoculars to go stargazing, but you will need warm clothes, camping chairs, blankets, a warm drink and snacks. If you do have binoculars, don’t forget to explore the craggy surface of the moon. If you notice a light moving steadily across the sky without twinkling then this is probably a satellite. It might even be the international space station, so don’t forget to wave!
Provided light pollution is low, then you should be able to make out the Milky Way, while if you sit patiently long enough, you could be rewarded with a spectacular meteor shower. And who wouldn’t like to be showered with gifts on their birthday?
You could plant a tree
If you’d like to do an outdoor winter workout on your birthday with added environmental kudos then I can highly recommend planting trees. The bare-root tree planting season runs from late November to early March in the UK because trees need to be planted in a dormant state to give them a good chance of surviving and thriving. Community conservation groups and charities often need volunteers to help them carry out tree-planting sessions over the winter months. Check out The Tree Council to find a group near you. Or if you are a member of a group that would like to plant trees on your patch, you could apply for a grant from The Tree Council or the Woodland Trust.
Russell Miller of the Hackney Tree Musketeers recommends the following steps to planting a tree:
- Safety first
- Identify the right place
- Remove any surrounding turf
- Dig a square hole (to encourage the roots to travel outwards) to the same level as the container
- Plant the tree and, if necessary, insert a stake and attach guards
- Mulch (but keep a gap around the stem)
All the digging and mulch shovelling, combined with driving a stake into the ground, can really work up a sweat, even in the depths of winter. But it’s immensely satisfying work that will connect you with your local landscape and give you a glow for helping to green it up. Don’t forget to revisit your tree to water it, especially over the summer months.
You could see a beautiful sunrise or sunset
Both the sunrise and the sunset are arguably at their most beautiful in the depths of winter due to certain atmospheric conditions. According to meteorologists, there are more dust and pollutant particles in the air during the summer months due to the greater humidity. These particles have the effect of scattering the light and reducing the vibrancy of the colours of sunrise and sunset. But the colder, drier air of wintertime has fewer colour-filtering particles in it, which allows us to see the colours of sunset or sunrise in their full intensity.
Sunsets also tend to last longer the closer it is to the winter solstice, because the sun sets at more of an angle. What’s more, cloud cover, as long as its in the right place, can enhance the drama of a sunset. Apparently, high clouds above or to the east can catch the last rays of light, setting the sky ablaze with red, orange and pink.
A winter sunrise can be even more spectacular than a sunset, and you don’t need to get up at an unearthly hour to witness one. If you can make it to the top of a hill in time, you could catch a temperature inversion, in which a layer of cold air is trapped beneath a layer of warm air, causing the sun to mysteriously float above a sea of morning mist. Could you imagine starting your special day with a more magical scene?
Do you or any of your loved ones have a birthday in January or in another winter month? Do you/they like it? How do you celebrate? And what do you enjoy most about wintertime?
(Featured image credit: Mike McGrath, Unsplash)