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 his mind so much did glad.
Upon a shaggy-bearded goat he rode,
The same wherewith Dan Jove on tender yeares,
They say, was nourisht by th' Idaen mayd;
And in his hand a broad deepe bowle he beares,
Of which he freely drinks an health to all his peeres.
Dark December has now come, and brought with him the shortest day and longest night: he turns the mist-like rain into ice with the breath of his nostrils: and with cold that pierces to the very bones, drives the shivering and houseless beggar to seek shelter in the deserted shed. He gives a chilly blue steel-likecolour to the shrivelled hops and haws, and causes the half-starved fieldfares to huddle together in the naked hedge for warmth; while the owl, rolling himself up like a ball in his feathers, creeps as far as he can into the old hollow tree, to get out of the way of the cold. Even the houses, with their frosted windows, have now a wintery look; and the iron knocker of the door, covered with hoary rime, seems to cut the fingers like a knife when it is touched. The only cheering sight we see as we pass through a village, is the fire in the black-smith's forge, and boys sliding as they break the frosty air with merry shouts-on the large pond with its screen of pollard-willows, broken now and then by the report of the sportsman's gun, and the puff of smoke which we see for a few moments floating on the air like a white cloud in the distant valley.
We see the footprints of the little robin in the snow, and where it lies deep, the long-eared hare betrays her hiding-place by the deep indentments she makes in the feathery flakes. The unfrozen mere looks black through the snow that lies around it, while the flag like sedges that stand upright appear like sharp sword-blades frosted with silver. The trees mirrored deep down seem as if reflected on polished ebony, until we draw nearer and look at the cold gray sky, that appears to lie countless fathoms below.
When the wind shakes the frosted rushes and the bending water-flags, they seem to talk to one another in hoarse husky whispers, as if they had lost their voices through standing so long in the cold by the water-courses, and forgotten the low murmurings they gave utterance to in summer. We pity the few sheep that are still left in the fields, burrowing for the cold turnips under the snow, and almost wish their owners had to procure their own food in the same way, for having neglected to fold them. The falling snow from some overladen branch, under which we are passing, makes us shake our heads as we feel it thawing about the neck.
Now the mole is compelled to work his way deeper underground in search of food, as the worms he feeds upon are only to be found beyond the reach of the frost, below which he must penetrate or starve, for his summer hunting-grounds are now tenantless. During a severe frost, myriads of fish perish for want of air in our ponds and rivers, and those who value their stock will not neglect to make holes through the ice, and throw food into the water, for unless this is done, they will devour one another. Cattle also gather about their usual drinking-place, and wait patiently until the ice is broken for them. That lively little fellow, the water-wagtail-the smallest of our birds that walk-may now be seen pecking about the spots of ground that are unfrozen in moist places, though what he finds to feed upon there, unless it be loosened bits of grit and gravel, is difficult to ascertain.
Many a shy bird, but seldom seen at any other season, now draws near to our habitations in search of food; and sometimes, when entering an outhouse, we are startled by the rush of wings, as the pretty intruder escapes by the open doorway we are entering. The black-bird dashes out of the shed as the farmer's boy enters to fodder the cattle, frightening him for the moment, so unexpected and sudden is the rush; for cattle must now be attended to early and late, and the farmer finds plenty to do, although there is but little labour going on in the fields. Sometimes he has to hurry out half-dressed in the night, for there is a cry of 'murder' in the hen-roost, and he well knows that the fox has broken in someway, and will not retire supperless in spite of the loud outcry. The housewife, when she counts her chickens next morning, and reckons up her loss, wishes the old earth-stopper had been laid up with rheumatism instead of being out all night as he is, blocking up the fox-holes, while Reynard is out feeding, to prevent him from running in when he is hunted. Poor old fellow! we have often felt sorry for him, as we have passed him on a cold winter's night, with his lantern and spade, making the best of his way to some fox's burrow, to block up the entrance, and have often wondered what the fox thinks when he returns home, and finds the doorway filled in with thorns and furze, over which the earth is shovelled. Though a thief, he is a beautifully formed animal, and I like to see him trailing his long bush through the snow, and to hear his feet stirring the fallen leaves as he steals through the wood.
How few and apt are the words Shakspeare has used to paint a perfect picture of winter in Love's Labour's Lost! He begins by describing the icicles hanging down the wall, and Dick the shepherd blowing his nails to warm them, with the same breath that he blows into his porridge to cool it. Next he tells us how Tom drags huge logs to the great hall-fire, which he would rear on the andirons, for grates and coal were not in use in Shakspeare's time; then follows Marian with her red, raw nose, the milk frozen in the pail she carries, pitying the poor birds she saw outside shivering in the snow. Neither do matters mend at church, where there is such a noise of coughing as to drown the parson's 'sixteenthly,' one aisle answering to another, as if the congregation were playing at catching colds instead of balls, for as soon as one has ceased to cough, it is taken up by another, until it goes the whole round of the church. Outside, at night, the owl keeps crying, 'To-whit, too-whoo,' hidden, perhaps, among the ivy of centuries, which has overgrown the picturesque and ornamented gable.
Every line here of the great poet is a picture of winter, though only painted in words; and so distinct is each outline, that any artist, with a poetical eye, might transfer every figure, with such action as Shakspeare has given to each, to canvas. Now is the time to sit by the hearth and peruse his immortal works; and few, we think, will read a page attentively without discovering something new-some thought that assumes a fresh form, or presents itself to the mind in a new light. For out-of-door pleasure, at times, is not to be found, as the days are short, cold, comfortless, and almost dark; lanes, fields, and woods naked, silent, and desolate; while the dull gray sky seems, at times, as if sheeted with lead. What a brave heart the pretty robin must have to sing at such a season! and if anything can tempt us out of doors, it is a hope that we may hear his cheerful song.
Beside the song of the robin, the green ivy gives a life to the nakedness, especially when we see it clambering up a gigantic tree, whose branches are bald. In summer we could not see it for the intervening foliage, though it was then green with young leaves. We love to see it romping about our gray old churches, and old English manor-houses; sometimes climbing up the old square tower of the one, and burying under its close-clinging stems the twisted chimneys of the other, forming a warm shelter for the little wrens and titmice from the biting frosts and cutting winds of winter. Then there are the bright holly-bushes, with their rich clusters of crimson berries, which throw quite a cheerful warmth around the places in which they grow, and recall pleasant visions of the coming Christmas, and the happy faces they will flash upon when reflecting the sunny blaze from the snug warm hearth. Here and there, though never very common, we see the mirth-making mistletoe, generally growing on old apple and hawthorn trees, and very rarely on the oak; and it is on records which have been written from ancient traditions, that wherever the Druids selected a grove of oaks for their heathen worship, they always planted apple-trees about the place, so that the mistletoe might be trained around the trunks of the oaks.
The black hellebore, better known as the Christmas-rose, is one of the prettiest flowers now seen out of doors, though but seldom met with in the present day, excepting in old gardens, which we much wonder at, as it is a large, handsome, cup-shaped flower, sometimes white, but more frequently of a rich warm pink colour, and quite as beautiful as any single rose that is cultivated. But few gardens are without evergreens, and the winter-blooming laurustinus, mixed with other shrubs, now make a pretty show, though a noble, old, high holly-hedge is, after all, one of the grandest of green objects we now meet with.
Another curious shrub that now occasionally flowers, is the Glastonbury-thorn, which our forefathers believed never bloomed until Christmas-day. It may sometimes be found now covered with blossom, although, like the rest of the thorns, it had bloomed before in May, as will be seen by the berries hanging on it at its second time of flowering, though this after-crop of bloom is not general. All we can see in the kitchen-garden is a little green above the ridge, where the celery is earthed up; a few savoys and kale, with a refreshing rim of parsley here and there, if it has been protected from the frost; and these, excepting the autumn-sown cabbage plants, are about all that now look green.
Still there are occasionally days when the sun comes out, and a mild south wind blows, shaking the icicles that hang from the gray beard of grim old Winter, as if to tell him that he must not sleep too sound, for the shortest day has come, and the snow-drops will soon be in flower, and then a flush of golden crocuses will be seen, that will make his dim eyes dance again as he rubs the hoary rime from his frosted eyelashes. And on these fine December days, great enjoyment may be found in a good bracing country-walk, which will send a summer glow through the system, and cause us to forget the cold. The sky appears of a more brilliant blue, and looks as if higher up than at any other season, while the winter moon, often seen at noonday, appears to have gone far away beyond her usual altitude. We see a new beauty in the trees which we beheld not before-the wonderful ramification of the branches as they cross and interlace each other, patterns fit for lace, nature's rich net-work-scallop and leaf, that seem as if worked on the sky to which we look up; and we marvel that some of our pattern-drawers have not made copies of these graceful intersections of spray and bough as seen amid the nakedness of winter. Sometimes the branches are hung with frost, which, were it not of so pure a white, we might fancy was some new kind of beautiful shaggy moss, in form like what is often seen on trees. The bushes, sedge, and withered grasses are covered with it, and look at times as if they were ornaments cut out of gypsum or the purest marble; while some portions of the hedges, where only parts of the branches are seen, look like the blackthorn, which is sheeted with milk-white blossoms long before a green leaf appears.
We often wonder how, during a long and severe frost, the birds contrive to live. That many perish through cold and want of food, is well known through the number that are picked up dead and frozen, though a greater number are eaten by the animals that prey upon everything they can find. Many pick up insects in a dormant state from out the stems of decayed trees, old walls, and the thatched roofs of cottages and outhouses, and they also forage among furze-bushes, the underneath portions of which being dead, form a warm shelter for such insects as the gnats, which maybe seen out in every gleam of sunshine; for there are numbers of birds that never approach the habitation of man, no matter how severe the winter may be.
But most mysterious of all is the manner the waterfowl manage to subsist, when every stream, lake, and river is frozen, which has happened at times, and lasted for several weeks. It is very possible that they then leave our inland waters, and have recourse to the sea, though many naturalists have come to the conclusion that they then return to the countries from whence they came. There is but little doubt that birds feed on many things we are ignorant of. We have startled them, many a time, from some spot where they were pecking at something as fast as their little heads could go up and down; but even with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass, we were unable to discover anything but small grit, sand, and portions of fine gravel on the spot. Wood-pigeons, we know well, eat the eyeshoots out of the tops of turnips, and devour the tenderest portion of winter-greens. Larks and other birds find a living in the autumn-sown corn-fields, and make sad havoc among the seed. Other birds tear the thatch off corn-stacks, and eat until they are hardly able to fly. Country lads know that there is good shooting to be found in places like these. Nor does the farmer care so much about what they devour, as the injury they cause to what is left; for where the thatch is off, the rain penetrates, and runs down to the very lowest sheaves in the rick, which, after getting wet, soon become black and rotten. One thing we must consider, birds require less food during these short, dark days than they do at any other season of the year, as they are asleep more than double the time they pass in slumber in summer, nor when awake do they exert themselves so much on the wing as during the long days.
How dreary must have been the winters through which our forefathers passed, no further back even than a century ago! But few of our towns were then lighted at night; here and there an oil-lamp flickered, which the wind soon blew out; and these cast such a dull light, and were so far apart, that few old people ventured through the streets on dark nights without carrying lanterns in their hands. Those who could afford it, followed their servants, who were the lantern-bearers. Then the roads were almost impassable in winter, and a few may still be found in the remote corners of England, bad enough, to tell what the generality of highways were in those old days. Coaches were almost unknown, and unless people rode on horseback, there was only the slow-paced stage-wagon, which even a cripple might pass on the road; for the great lumbering tilted vehicle, when it did not stick fast, seldom crept along at the rate of more than two miles an hour. All the miles of villages and roads that went stretching away from the little town, were in darkness; for when the last dim lamp was left behind at the town-end, no more light was to be seen, unless from the window of some solitary farmhouse, where they had not retired to rest, until you reached your own home in the far-away hamlet; and fortunate you were if you did not lose your shoes in the knee-deep muddy roads.
Men have been known, in those old winters, to stick fast in the roads that run through clay lands, where they were sometimes found dead, or if they survived, were unable to move when pulled out in the following morning, until warmth was restored to the system. On lonesome moors, wide unenclosed commons, and hedgeless heaths, wayfarers, unable to travel along the deep-rutted and muddy roads, lost their way, trying to find a firmer footing elsewhere, and wandered about until the cold gray dawn of winter broke, fortunate if in the night they stumbled upon some dilapidated field-shed or sheepfold.
Goods were carried from one town to another on the backs of packhorses; and the mounted traveller who had to journey far, carried all his necessaries in his saddle-bags, considering himself very fortunate if he had not to give them up, with all his money, to some daring highwayman, who generally rode up, pistol in hand, demanding without ceremony 'Your money, or your life!' Any one glancing over the files of country newspapers that appeared about a century ago, would be startled to read of the number of high-way robberies that then took place, and the many wayfarers that perished through cold on the roads during those old hard winters. We, who travel by rail, and live in towns lighted by gas, are not subject to these calamities.
We have, in our day, seen men compelled to cross the wide fens and marshes when snow has fallen after a hard frost, and it was impossible to tell where the water-courses lay in places that drained these wide low-lying lands, as all appeared alike a level waste buried under a white snowy pall. For safety they bestrode long leaping-poles, which they used for clearing the dikes in summer, and now employed in throwing themselves across the trenches, so that if the ice broke with them, they were seldom immersed above the legs. And across those long, wide, white windy marshes, where there was neither hoof, wheel, nor footmark to guide them, would these hardy men travel on their errands, with nothing to guide them but some bush or embankment or taller tuft of sedge, whose forms were so altered by the fallen snow, that they went along in doubt as to whether they were the same landmarks they were accustomed to trust to. And sometimes they fell into deep hollows, where the snow drifted over them in the night, and were not found again for weeks after they were lost, when their bodies were borne back for burial.
From some of these old newspapers now before us, describing the winters a hundred years ago in the country, we find such passages as the following: ' The frost was so severe, the street-lamps could not be lighted on account of the oil being frozen; many people were found frozen to death in the fields and roads, and thousands of birds were picked up dead.' -'So severe was the weather, that only eight or nine people came from the country on market-day; none of the carriers arrived, nor any sheep or cattle; the town has been without water three weeks, except what is got through melting down the ice and snow. Many people have been found dead in the stackyards and sheds without the town.' -And during this severe weather, the quartern-loaf was selling for 1s. 4d., and wheat fetching £6 and £7 a quarter, and that was no longer ago than the first year of the present century. Another of these old papers says: `The weather was so severe, and the snow so deep, that the judges were detained on the road, and could not come in time to open the assizes.'
Flocks of sheep perished in the snow-drifts during these hard winters, and shepherds who went out to look after them, were sometimes lost, nor were their bodies found until spring came and all the snow had melted away. We were shewn a deep dell in the wild wolds, where one of the shepherds was found, after the snow had gone, and all around where he had so long lain dead, there were thousands of primroses in bloom. Even in the present day, when winters are generally milder, we have often with difficulty climbed some hill, that we might look over the snow-clad country at our feet. The cottages in the distance seem half-buried, as if the snow stood as high as the window-sills and reached half up the doorways, and you wonder how the inhabitants can get out, and make their way over those white untrodden fields, so deep as they are covered with snow. The rick-yard looks like mounds of up-coned snow, yet so smooth and equally distributed that no human hand could pile flake above flake in such level and beautiful slopes, so unindented and unbroken, out of any material mechanical art can contrive; and yet so lightly do the flakes lie on one another, that the first gust of wind shakes them loose, and disperses them on the air like full-blown May-blossoms. One might fancy that the long rows of level hedges were thick marble walls, and that the black line far beyond which marks the river, was the deep chasm from which all those miles of upheaving marble has been quarried.
We look behind, where hills ascend above hills, with level table-lands between, telling where, for unknown epochs, the ocean spread and sank in desolate silence; and we seem as if looking upon a dead country, from which everything living has long since passed away, and nothing could find sustenance on those cold terraces and bald high uplands of snow, to whose sides the few bare trees that lean over seem to cling in agony, as the wind goes moaning through their naked branches. But, like the blue of heaven seen through the rift of clouds beyond, there is hope before us, for the shortest day is passed, and soon some little hardy flower will be seen here and there, and far across the snow we shall hear the faint bleating of new-born lambs, and the round green daisies will begin to knock under the earth to be let out, and so frighten grim old Winter in his sleep, that he will jump up and hurry away, looking with averted head over his shoulder, for fear he should be over-taken by Spring.
December, like the three preceding months, derives its, name from the place which it held in the old Roman calendar, where the year was divided, nominally, only into ten months, with the insertion of supplementary days, to complete the period required for a revolution of the earth round the sun. In allusion to the practice of lighting fires in this month for the purpose of warmth, and the consequent inconveniences which resulted, Martial applies to it the epithet of fumosus or smoky. He also characterises it as canus or hoary, from the snows which then overspread the high grounds. By the ancient Saxons, December was styled Winter-monat or winter month; a term which, after their conversion to Christianity, was changed to Heligh-monat or holy month from the anniversary, which occurs in it, of the birth of Christ. Among the modern Germans, December is still, from this circumstance, distinguished by the epithet of Christmonat.
CHARACTERISTICS OF DECEMBER
On the 22nd of December, the sun enters the sign of Capricornus or the Goat. The idea thus allegorised by a climbing animal is said to be the ascent of the sun, which, after reaching its lowest declination at the winter-solstice, on the 21st of this month, recommences its upward path, and continues to do so from that date till it attains its highest altitude at the summer-solstice, on the 21st of June.
The average temperature for the middle of December, throughout the British Islands, is about 39° . On the 1st of the month, in the latitude of London, the sun rises at 7:57 and sets at 4:30. As regards meteorological characteristics, December bears in its earlier portion a considerable resemblance to the preceding month of November. Heavy falls of snow and hard frosts used to be of normal occurrence at the season of Christmas, but in recent years Britain has witnessed such a cycle of mild winters, that, as a general rule, snow rarely descends in any quantity before the commencement of the New Year.