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“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

My earlier posts here about weather lore and how we sometimes forecast the weather for the upcoming months have been getting more hits lately. A glance at the sidebar list of popular posts will probably show that this month. People are worrying about what winter has in store for them.

You can define the end of a season in several ways. I wrote earlier about seasons that you can use the “meteorological calendar” to mark changes in seasons or the meteorological which makes the four seasons into neat three-month chunks of time.

But I like to examine a third way of defining seasons which is more fluid. It is phenology – the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events. The start of a season using this method is not based on set dates or a single event like an equinox or solstice. We look to the natural world.

You use this method, even if you never heard of phenology. You probably have watched the tree foliage changing color, the pumpkins ripening, flowers dying off, squirrels being crazier than ever and loving the falling acorns.

This is geographically specific observations. If I told you that the arrival of the first blackberry means that autumn has arrived, some would respond the blackberries appeared in July, and other people would say they ripen when the trees have lost their leaves in December.

Did you have a wet summer? Then you are likely to have a long, colorful autumn. Of course, a warm, dry spring could have prevented the sugars forming in trees which create those beloved autumn colors.

The maple trees usually turn first and then the beeches and finally the oaks give in November.

The trees know – or feel – that summer is over and stop producing the chlorophyll that gives them their green color. That lets the yellow to red pigments rule. Dry weather means more sugar which means more anthocyanins that make leaves red.

Observing nature in your area should be more accurate than any prediction about broader areas like the Northeast or very general ones about the United States.

Want to do some basic citizen science? Pay attention.

Now, it’s not strong scientific phenology but do the squirrels and raccoons have thick tails? That is supposed to mean a rough winter. Are spiders spinning larger than usual webs and trying harder to get in your house? More bad winter foreshadowing along with bees taking to the hive earlier. The popular predictors, the woolly bear caterpillars, better have narrow rather than wide middle brown bands so that winter will be less severe.

How about posting a comment on this post about your own personal sign of winter being “official” in your neighborhood?  My mom used to say it was after the third frost. It’s certainly not when Christmas decorations appear in stores or holiday lights get turned on in the neighborhood.

 

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