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There is snow on the ground in Paradelle and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after her birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So it offers the elements of fire and a birth.

 

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

 

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

“The Christmas Song” sets the holiday scene with:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos 

Jack Frost has been a name used to personify not only frost, but ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is not quite the same as Old Man Winter who represents the entire season.

Jack is connected with those colder aspects of winter. After all, Old man Winter doesn’t treat southern California in the same way as he treats Maine.  His calling card is the fern-like patterns he leaves on cold windows and plants.

The character of Jack Frost has been around since at least the 1700s. He was usually shown as a mischievous boy or sprite fond of giving noses a chilling bite.

He may originate from Anglo-Saxon and Norse winter customs. He appears in Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. In Russia, he is Grandfather Frost. The closest German equivalent is Mrs. Holle. There are various other mythological beings who take on a similar role yet have different folklore to them.

Jack Frost has appeared as a character in television and movies. He pops up in songs about the winter season, such as “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”).

He has been presented as both a villain and hero. Modern-day Jack Frost’s come in many forms in popular culture.

He appears in Rise of the Guardians, where he is tired of being unseen and suddenly is forced to join the other Guardians – Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and the Easter Bunny.

In one Jack Frost film, a father returns to life as a loving snowman Jack.

In another film, a man named Jack Frost is genetically altered into a serial killer 
snowman.

Jack appears as the primary antagonist in The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause where he is jealous of the attention and popularity of Santa Claus.

 

In the summer of 1897, a father was asked a very difficult question that many parents have heard. Is there really a Santa Claus? Dr. O’Hanlon’s daughter, Virginia, was eight years old and was hearing from friends on summer vacation that she was foolish to believe in Santa. Her father, a serious man who was a police surgeon and deputy coroner, avoided being the word of authority and told her to write a letter to the editors of one of their New York City newspapers, The Sun. They printed her letter on September 21st.

Dear Editor:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

That short letter from 115 West 95th Street, got a reply, “Is There a Santa Claus?” in that edition. It has become the most reprinted editorial, and is best known for one line in the editorial, which begins:

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence…”                                                            read the full editorial

I got the same question from my sons a few decades ago. I didn’t tell them to write to a newspaper. I did not want to crush their belief in Santa, but I didn’t want them mocked at school. My older son was a big fan of the book, The Polar Express. In that book, there is a Christmas bell. Believers can hear it ring; non-believers can’t hear the sound. Our family could all hear the sound.

What i ended up telling the boys was that the popular Santa Claus of TV and movies and at the mall were not Santa, but they were believers who wanted to carry on the original version of Santa’s work. No magic sleigh and flying reindeer, but there is something of the magic still evident in the season. My younger son nodded in agreement and said there had to be some Santa because “there’s no way you and mommy would buy us all those gifts!” True, true.

For me, the more important line in the editorial is saying that “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

As Old Man Winter is a personification of the season with some mythological and historical roots, Santa Claus is also a personification of pagan and some religious traditions made less secular. I wish Santa Claus was not associated with a religious holiday and was more of an end of the year symbol. Bringing gifts to those we love and care about, gathering with friends and family is certainly a good way to end the year.

santa game

Box cover from “Visit from Santa” game from the late 1800s

I was surprised to find a website for The New York Sun because I thought it had disappeared many years ago. It was a daily NY newspaper published from 2002 to 2008 adopting the name, motto, and masthead of the earlier NY newspaper that published the editorial, The Sun, which existed from 1833 to 1950. It became the first general-interest broadsheet newspaper to be started in New York City in several decades. Its op-ed page became a prominent platform in the country for conservative viewpoints. The Sun merged with the World-Telegram in 1950. Since 2009, The Sun has operated as an online-only publisher

CBS Sunday Morning did a segment, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” that talked with Virginia’s living relatives and takes a look at the original letter.     watch story online

This is a topic that I am more likely to write about on my word origins blog: words of the winter season that seem to have gotten lost over the years. An article on the quite wonderful mentalfloss.com website calls a group of words “obsolete Christmas words,” but I think most of them are more winter season words. Because they are English (Modern, Middle or Old) and German, they tend to be associated with the Yule or Christmas season.

I probably won’t be drinking wassail this month. That is a beverage of hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing, which was a Medieval Christmastide English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. (I may very well down a few hard ciders though, so hopefully that will please the apple gods.) Wassail probably comes from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health” and was a greeting.

One word that is totally new to me comes from Latin. You can say that it looks ninguid outside when the landscape is snow-covered.

You all know that to hibernate means sleeping throughout the entire winter. It is something animals do – not people, though some of us seem to hibernate. But some of you probably do hiemate (which my spellcheck is not happy with) which means to spend winter somewhere.

Actually, searching online for hiernate turned up nothing, so I kind of wonder about the validity of these words. Are they so lost that even Google can’t find them? For example, doesn’t the term “yule-hole” seem fake or very modern? It supposedly means the hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal. And yet, going back to the 1500s, the terms belly-cheer or belly-timber was used for fine food and somewhat gluttonous eating that may occur in winter and around holiday celebrations from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and into those stay-at-home days of February too.

If you give a tip when you’re at the bar for your drinks, that can be called a pourboire. The word comes from French and literally means “for drink.”

Many of us give or get gift cards and money as a gift. To distinguish a thing that is a gift (or present) from one that is money given in lieu of the traditional gift, the term “present-silver” has been around since the 1500s.

Another word that is brand new to me but old is xenium. It sounds like a new drug or tech company, but it means a gift that is given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host.

Do you know nog, a word that comes from ancient English ales but still shows up in words we use during the season, such as eggnog.

While you are celebrating, keep in mind “apolausticism,” a long-lost 19th-century word derived from Greek meaning “to enjoy,” that describes the total devotion to enjoying yourself.

And after you totally enjoy yourself, a word that looks and sounds just right is crapulence. The OED tells us that this 18th-century word describes “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

blackberries

blackberries

“Blackberry winter” is a new season to me, but this colloquial expression is used in south & midwest North America. It refers to a cold snap that often occurs in late spring when the blackberries are in bloom.

Timing for blackberry blooms varies depending on the weather in your area and the variety. But in the warmer climates (USDA zone 7 and south) blackberries start blooming from mid-April to early May.

blackberry blooms

blackberry blooms

In cooler climates, like Paradelle, blackberries begin to bloom in late May and are not ready to harvest until around mid-July. Though the frost-free date here is May 15, there will be no blackberry winters here. It is more likely that in April our fruit trees, like apples and peaches, will get nipped.

Some people believe that a blackberry winter helps the blackberry canes to start growing.

Another blossom that can get hit with a cold snap in our region is the cherry blossom.

The cherry blossom is a mainstay image of spring in haiku poetry. Japanese cherry blossoms and the tradition of flower gazing, or hanami, has inspired poets for centuries.

Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossoms

Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms scatter–
snap! the buck’s antlers
come off

without regret
they fall and scatter…
cherry blossoms
~ Issa

Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms
~ Basho

Drinking up the clouds
it spews out cherry blossoms –
Yoshino Mountain.

Petals falling
unable to resist
the moonlight
~ Buson

Cherry blossoms at Branch Brook Park, NJ

Washington D.C. is famous for the thousands of cherry trees sent there as a gift from Japan before the World Wars as a gesture of friendship. It is far less well known that Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C.

But if you are in that warmer climate and you get a late cold snap so that a little “winter” hits during spring,  you have “blackberry winter,” although there are other names for this weather anomaly: “dogwood winter,” “whippoorwill winter,” “locust winter,” and “redbud winter” are all variations.

As with the different nature-oriented names for the Full Moons that are based on locations, these names are based on what is blooming in regions during the typical spring cold snaps.

In rural England, this is called “blackthorn winter”because the blackthorn in hedgerows blossoms in early April. In Finland, this is a common occurrence in April or May. They call it takatalvi, meaning “back winter.”

Last weekend was Palm Sunday.  This week is usually a time of the year when my mind blooms. I wrote this a few years ago.

Palm Sunday

Moveable feast this Passover and Easter week.
No palms here but crocuses, wood hyacinths,
jonquils, cherry blossoms, a first bee buzzing.
Yew Sunday, Branch Sunday, triumph and victory
contained in a seed, bud, pollen, flower.

tree man

The solstice came, the days lengthen and

winter blows colder winds, but tree man,

a gentle soul, not a horror legend,

holds on to his brown autumn coat,

guarding the creek, watching me grow old.

 

Reposted from writingtheday.wordpress.com

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