William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.
And after him came next the chill December
Yet he, through merry feasting which he made
And great bonfires, did not the cold remember
His Saviour’s birth so much his mind did glad.
Upon a shaggy bearded goat he rode,
The same wherewith Dan Jove in tender years,
They say was nourisht by the Idaen mayd;
And in his hand a broad deepe bowle he beares,
Of which he freely drinks an health to all his peers.
This is the twelfth and last month of the year. By our ancestors “December hath his due appellation given him in the name of winter-monat, to wit, winter-cometh; but after the Saxons received Christianity, they then, of devotion to the birth-time of Christ, termed it by the name of heligh-monat, that is to say, holy-cometh.”1 They also called it midwinter-monath and guil erra, which means the former or first guil. The feast of Thor, which was celebrated at the winter solstice, was called giul from iol, or ol, which signified ale, and is now corrupted into yule. This festival appears to have been continued through part of January.2
Our pleasant guide to “The Months,” Mr. Leigh Hunt, says of December thus :—
It is now complete winter. The vapourish and cloudy atmosphere wraps us about with dimness and chilliness; the reptiles and other creatures that sleep or hide during the cold weather, have all retired to their winter quarters; the farmer does little or nothing out of doors; the fields are too damp and miry to pass, except in sudden frosts, which begin to occur at the end of the month; and the trees look but like skeletons of what they were—
Bare ruined choirs in which the sweet birds sang.
The evergreen trees with their beautiful cones, such as firs and pines, are now particularly observed and valued. In the warmer countries, where shade is more desirable, their worth and beauty are more regularly appreciated. Virgil talks of the pine as being handsomest in gardens; and it is a great favourite with Theocritus, especially for the fine sound of the air under its kind of vaulted roof.
But we have flowers as well as leaves its winter-time; besides a few of last month, there are the aconite and hellebore, two names of very different celebrity; and in addition to some of the flourishing shrubs, there is the Glastonbury thorn, which puts forth its beauty at Christmas. It is so called, we believe, because the abbots of the famous monastery at that place first had it in their garden from abroad, and turned its seasonable efforescence into a miracle.
The evergreens and winter flowers are like real friends, who, whatever be their peculiar disposition, whether serious or gay, will never forsake us. Even roses, with which we are so apt to associate summer weather, flourish from May to December inclusive; and during the winter months will live and prosper in apartments. We need never be without them from the first day of the year to the last; and thus, to the numerous comparisons made between roses and the fair sex, may be added this new one, as complimentary to their friendship as it is true.
We have anticipated our general observations on winter-time in our remarks at the beginning of the year. December is in general too early a month for the fine manly exercise of skating, which indeed can be taken but rarely, on account of our changeful weather and the short continuance of frost. Like swimming, all the difficulty of it is in the commencement, at least for the purposes of enjoyment. The graces of outside strokes, and spread eagles, are the work of time and ambition.
But December has one circumstance in it, which turns it into the merriest month of the year, — Christmas. This is the holiday, which, for obvious reasons, may be said to have survived all the others; but still it is not kept with any thing like the vigour, perseverance, and elegance of our ancestors. They not only ran Christmas-day, new-year’s-day, and twelfth-night, all into one, but kept the wassail-bowl floating the whole time, and earned their right to enjoy it by all sorts of active pastimes. The wassail-bowl, (as some of our readers may know by experience, for it has been a little revived of late,) is a composition of spiced wine or ale, with roasted apples put into it, and sometimes eggs. They also adorned their houses with green boughs, which it appears, from Herrick, was a practice with many throughout the year, —box succeeding at Candlemas to the holly, bay, rosemary, and misletoe of Christmas, —yew at Easter to box, —birch and flowers at Whitsuntide to yew, —and then bents and oaken boughs. The whole nation were in as happy a ferment at Christmas, with the warmth of exercise and their firesides, as they were in May with the new sunshine. The peasants wrestled and sported on the town-green, and told tales of an evening; the gentry feasted then, or had music and other elegant pastimes; the court had the poetical and princely entertainment of masques; and all sung, danced, revelled, and enjoyed themselves, and so welcomed the new year like happy and grateful subjects of nature.
This is the way to turn winter to summer, and make the world what heaven has enabled it to be; but as people in general manage it, they might as well turn summer itself to winter. Hear what a poet says, who carries his own sunshine about with him:—
As for those chilly orbs, on the verge of creation
Where sunshine and smiles must be equally rare
Did they want a supply of cold hearts for that station,
Heaven knows we have plenty on earth we could spare.
Oh, think what a world we should have of it here,
If the haters of peace, of affection, and glee,
Were to fly up to Saturn’s comfortless sphere,
And leave earth to such spirits as you, love, and me.
Nor is it only on holidays that nature tells us to enjoy ourselves. If we were wise, we should earn a reasonable portion of leisure and enjoyment day by day, instead of resolving to do it some day or other, and seldom doing it at all. Company is not necessary for it, at intervals, except that best and most necessary company of one’s family-partners in life, or some one or two especial friends, truly so called, who are friends for every sort of weather, winter as well as summer. A warm carpet and curtains, a sparkling fire, a book, a little music, a happy sympathy of talk or a kind of discussion, may then call to mind with unenvying placidity the very rarest luxuries of the summer-time; and instead of being eternally and foolishly told, that pleasures produce pains, by those who really make them do so with their profligacy or bigotry, we shall learn the finer and manlier knowledge — how to turn pain to the production of pleasure.
Lawrence, of virtuous father, virtuous son,
Now that the fields are dank and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
help waste a sullen day, what may be won
From the hard season gaining ? Time will run
On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire
The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, which neither sowed nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
Of Attick taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well touched, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?
He who of these delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.
Notes from Hone:
1. Verstegan. Return
2. Dr. F. Sayers. Return
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