December 30, 2009

Blue moon on New Year's Eve

I was going to break the news that we'll have a blue moon on New Year's Eve, but Associated Press beat me to the punch. It's good when folklore is covered in the press, but not when the press steals my topic! In case you didn't know, a blue moon is the term for the second full moon in a month. December's first full moon was on December 2, and the second is tomorrow night.

What the AP won't tell you is that the first moon was the Full Cold Moon. The meaning is pretty obvious there! December is cold.

The second moon will be the Full Long Nights Moon. Again, I can see where that name came from. Although the winter solstice was on the 21st, our nights are still very, very long. The shortest days in December had nine hours and four minutes of sunlight. (The 19th, 21st and 23rd were all the same length.) On New Year's Eve, we'll have a whopping nine hours and eight minutes of sunlight. Spend those four extra minutes well! In comparison, our longest day was June 23 with fifteen hours and eighteen minutes of sunlight.

Happy New Year!

December 24, 2009

Have a Merry Christmas - and check your hay!

Currier and Ives image from Hay in Art. There's a site for everything!

Here's a tidbit of Christmas folklore from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England.

There's an old British saying that's also found in New England: "Half the wood and half the hay you should have on Candlemas Day." Candlemas is celebrated on February 1, which is halfway between Halloween and May Day. You're only half way through the fallow part of the year on February 1, so you better have enough supplies to get you through the rest of the winter. (Groundhog Day is celebrated at the same time as Candlemas, and expresses this same theme).

Clifton Johnson also found this variation of the saying among Massachusetts farmers in the 19th century:

Half the pork and half the hay
On Christmas Day

I think a 19th century farmer would want more than half his supplies left on Christmas, but what do I know? It's still a long way to go until spring.

Johnson goes on to say: "It is related that there was a time when the men would occupy a part of their leisure on Christmas Day in making a tour of the neighbors to see how their hay was holding out." It sounds like a very relaxed way to spend the holiday.

I hope you have a good Christmas and have enough supplies to get through the winter!

December 14, 2009

A Drunken Christmas Part II, with Tragedy and a Recipe

Strangely, I found another piece of lore about Christmas that involves drunken sailors. It's tragic, but oddly also includes a recipe.

On Christmas night 1778, a powerful snowstorm struck Massachusetts. Plymouth was particularly hard hit, and the ships at anchor there had to make a hard decision: stay in Plymouth Harbor and possibly get wrecked ashore, or try to ride out the storm in the open sea where the weather might be even worse. James Magee, the captain of a ship called the General Arnold, decided to stay in Plymouth Harbor.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. The ship was driven onto a sand flat and broken in two by the violent storm.

Captain Magee and his 105 men were trapped on the flat for more than four days, buffeted by winds and drenched by freezing waves. He urged his men to fill their boots with brandy to prevent their feet from freezing. The crew had another idea - they used the brandy to fill their bellies instead.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. Eighty-three of the crew members froze to death. Many others were severely crippled.

Captain Magee wasn't among them. He went on to become a prosperous merchant, eventually buying the Shirley-Eustis House , the former Massachusetts governor's house in Roxbury. He never forgot that deadly Christmas night in Plymouth Harbor, though, and would host a Christmas party every year for invite the surviving crew members and the widows and children of those who had perished.

According Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England (where I found this story), the Shirley-Eustis House museum used to recreate Captain Magee's party each December, serving authentic food and beverages from the 18th century. So, for a little holiday cheer after a melancholy story, here is the recipe McGuiggan provides for Captain Magee's Eighteenth-Century Fish House Punch*. Consume this in moderation!

Mix together the juice of 12 lemons (1 1/2 cups) and several spoonfuls powdered sugar.
Add 1 1/2 quarts brandy
1 pint peach brandy
1 pint rum
1 quart carbonated water
1 quart brewed tea
Add more tea, lemon juice, or water to taste.
Stir well and add slices of oranges.
Serves 18.

*Apparently, Fish House Punch was first invented in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

P.S. - The Boston Globe today printed a piece by Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of The Battle for Christmas, which I've mentioned before. In it, he describes what Christmas was like in old New England. The comments posted online about his article are surprising - I guess people don't like hearing their ancestors were drunken, raucous and sometimes irreligious.

December 12, 2009

Ahoy! A Drunken Christmas!

A traditional New England Christmas?

Although the Puritan hierarchy frowned upon Christmas, the lower classes still celebrated their holiday in the traditional Old English way - by getting really drunk.

Here are a few verses from 17th and 18th century almanacs that describe what happened in the month of December:

Strong-Beer Stout Syder and a good fire
Are things this season doth require.
Now some with feasts do crown the day,
Whilst others loose their coyn in play...

The Miser and the Sot
together they have got,
to drink a Pot.

By strong Liquor and Play
They turn night into day.

Some ask a Dram when first come in,
Others with Flip* or Bounce* begin;
Tho' some do only call for Beer,
And that i' th' morn is but mean chear.

(*Note - flip is an alcoholic drink with a raw egg mixed in it. Ecch! I don't know what bounce is - maybe a punch of some kind? This verse describes the robust drinking habits of sailors in December.)

All of these quotes are from Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, which is a fantastic book. The past was much stranger than I was ever taught in school!

December 05, 2009

The Pilgrim's First Christmas Was a Dud (the Second Wasn't Too Great Either)

I can't believe it's December already! Christmas looms on the horizon.

When most people think of Christmas in New England, I'm sure images of sleigh rides, snowy town commons and greenery bedecked houses come to mind.

Maybe that's how things were in the 19th century, but the first Christmas celebrated here was a real downer. The second was pretty bad as well.

The Puritans and Pilgrims, as I wrote last year, did not approve of Christmas. To them, it had no basis in the Bible and was disruptive. December 25 was to be treated like any other other work day. To make sure everyone felt the same way they did, they made Christmas illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 - 1681.

So, the first Christmas in New England went completely uncelebrated. It wasn't until 1621 that some citizens of Plymouth (new arrivals who were not Puritans) tried to enjoy Christmas. Things didn't go well. A chronicle from that time, with many archaic spellings, notes:

"One the day called Chrismasday, the Governor caled them out to worke ... but the most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the bar; & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements ... Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly."

(The quote is from Christmas in New England by Amy Whorf McGuiggan.)