December 1995

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Associations of the

Last Month of the Year

contributed by

Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

The Elmira Sunday Telegram, December 1, 1895

December, Month of "Halcyon Days"

December Contains Many Notable and Memorable Days and
Some of Them Are Worthy of Special Mention—
Eminent Persons Who First Saw the Light in December—
The Great Feast Days and Holidays—
The Happiest Time for Marriage.

December is the month of the "halcyon days," one of the prettiest of the ancient myths. "Halcyone, or Alcyone, the daughter of Eoius, married Ceyx, king of Trachinia, who was drowned as he went to consult the oracle of Claros. The gods revealed to Halcyone in a dream the fate of her husband, whereupon she threw herself into the sea to share his fate. To reward this great affection the gods metamorphosed the lovers into halcyons, or kingfishers, and decreed that the sea should remain calm while these birds built their nests upon it. According to Pliny the "dies halcyonii," or halcyon days, were the seven preceding the winter solstice, which occurs December 21, and the seven following. The halcyons were supposed to build their nests upon the water, and as late as Montaigne's time, at least, the fable was believed. He speaks of it as a fact known to the seamen of the Sicilian sea. Dryden also refers to it:

Amidst our arms as quiet you shall be
As halcyons brooding on a winter's sea.

As a matter of fact the halcyons do not brood upon the sea nor make their nests there, though they skim the waters in search of their prey. They build their nests in holes along the shore and they breed in the spring as other birds do, and not in the winter. But there are many calm and tranquil days in December, and it is not the worst month in the year to cross the ocean. Such is the origin of the phrase "halcyon days," which has long since lost its original meaning and is now used to describe a period of peculiar peacefulness and happiness. "Those halcyon days, that golden age in gone," is a thought that often arises in the breast of those whom experiences teaches that "manhood's a struggle, old age a regret."

* * *

But besides the halcyon days of the ancients, December contains many notable and memorable days, and there is not a month in the year that is so full of tender and joyous associations. And primarily it may be said that according to our superstitious ancestors it is an auspicious month to be born in.

If cold December gave you birth,
The month of snow and ice and mirth,
Place on your hand a turquoise blue,
Success will bless whate'er you do.

A long list of eminent persons are to be credited to December. Among statesmen, Gladstone, Lord Beaconsfield, Warren Hastings, John Jay, Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson; among generals, Blucher, Cornwallis, McClellan, Meade and Custer; among scientists, Newton, Kepler, Humphrey Davy, Sir Benjamin Brewster and Boerhaave; among inventors, Charles Goodyear and Eli Whitney; among musicians, Beethoven and Weber; among poets, Milton, Racine, Horace, Whittier, Gray and Crabbe; among writers, Carlyle, Max Muller, Matthew Arnold, T. W. Higginson and Miss Milford; among women, Mary Stuart, Mme. Recamier, Caroline Southey and the Princess Alexandria.

It may also interest some of the Telegram's fair readers to know that December is the best month of all for happy marriages, and that the 31st is the luckiest day of all. In Scotland, where the superstition is widespread, there are more marriages by far on the 31st than on any other day of the year—four or five times as many. The Saxons called it Winta Monath and also holy month. The feast of the great god Thor was held on the 21st, a feast that subsequently gave place to Christmas. According to the French calendar of the revolution it is partly in Fremaise, the sleety, and partly in Nivose, the smoky month.

* * *

The 6th of December was anciently dedicated to the good Saint Nicholas, patron and protector of children, particularly schoolboys, of maidens, sailors, travelers and merchants. He is also the patron saint of New York, a boon the people there derive from their Holland ancestors. He it is that brings the good gifts that make the Christmas time so merry, and his doings are happily described in Moore's famous poem, "The Night Before Christmas." He is sometimes called Santa Claus, and in Germany is Kriss Kringle. He is universally recognized as a very admirable and excellent saint whose acquaintance is well worth cultivation. The festival of St.

apostles, the doubter, is held on the 21st, and in the middle ages the Christmas festivities began on that day. An old weather saying is that if snow falls on the 21st it will last for three months. But the day of all days, for young and old, for wise and simple alike is Christmas, that celebrates the nativity of Christ. The learned are not agreed as to the exact day on which the savior of the world was born, but since the second century the 25th of December has been accepted and observed as a religious festival and a season of joy and merrymaking in honor of the event. Diocletian, the ferocious Roman emperor, who rose from the ranks to the mastery of the empire, commenced the "tenth persecution," of the Christians by setting fire to a church in which were gathered a multitude of people engaged in celebrating the nativity of Christ on the 25th of December. This was near the close of the third century. Christmas has always been a great day with the Anglo-Saxon people, though our puritan ancestors would have naught to do with it as savoring, too much of popish customs. But in the days of "Merrie England" it was a day of feasting and wild revels. The rich and poor alike went mumming and masking. In the great houses and in almost every parish a "Lord of Misrule" was appointed, who acted as master of the revels. He commenced his duties by absolving everybody from all their wisdom and responsibility while the reign of fun and folly should continue. In Scotland this potentate was called the "Abbot of Unreason."

* * *

In the old time in England and Scotland it was called the feast of Yule, but the ethnology of the word is unknown. The word was variously spelled. An old song runs:

At ewie we wonten, bambole, daunce,
To carrol and to sing,
To have gud spiced sewe and roste,
And plum pies for a king.

"Sewe" was a pottage or made dish of any kind. The Yule log, or block, the back log of the great open fire, was placed on Christmas eve with great ceremony, as we may read in Herrick's verses:

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing:
While my good dame, she
Bids you all free,
And drink to hour heart's desiring.
With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and
For the good success in his spending,
On your psalteries play
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-tending.
Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shedding;
To the rare mince pie,
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that's a-kneading.

Our custom of having Christmas trees comes from Germany, and not from England. Coleridge, writing from Ratzeburg, in Germany, speaks of the custom as something novel to him, which, of course, he would not have done had he known it in England. He says:

On the evening before Christmas day one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the presents must go. A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and colored paper hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under the bough the children lay out in great order the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend to each other. Then the parents are introduced and each presents his little gift, and then bring out the rest one by one from their pockets and present them with kisses and embraces. While I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine childen, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness, and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his heart it seemed as though he did it to stifle the sob that was arising within him. I was very much affected.

Coleridge also describes certain other German customs at this season that are very pleasing. Literature is full of Christmas and Christmas doings. Nearly all poets have given us Christmas hymns, some of them, Like Milton's of rare beauty and splendor. The novelists, too, have not neglected the season, and Dickens particularly has made it his own. If one wants to know what Christmas jollity is let him read the account of Pickwick's visit to old Mr. Wardle, or for its pathos let him take down the "Christmas Carol."

* * *

The day after Christmas is called "boxing day," Its origin being derived from the custom that once prevailed of carrying from door to door a box for the purpose of collecting small presents. Gay refers to it:

When time comes round a Christmas box they bear,
And one day makes them rich for all the year.

The poorer people begged of their richer neighbors, and servants and laborers of everybody. In the "Journal to Stella" Swift writes:

By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues at the coffee-house have raised their tax, everyone giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men's porters.

Such are the chief associations connected with the last month of the year.

© 1995, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
Index to articles by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
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