"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Four Days to Christmas: Winter Solstice/Candle Night

From Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols by Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones:

“As winter approaches and the days get shorter and darker, the shops and streets begin to fill with Christmas decorations and lights, and before we have managed to think of cards and presents, we start hearing Christmas carols all around us — on the radio, in TV commercials and as we shop in the supermarket. Christmas carols have become part of our culture and carol services are still popular in our churches and cathedrals….

“Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, although they were pagan songs and people danced as they sang and celebrated the Winter Solstice feast, the shortest day of the year.”

From “An Offering to the Elves” in The Old Magic of Christmas by Linda Raedisch:

“[Elves] are bearers of light, so if you cannot manage a full moon for your feast, a waxing crescent is better than a waning three-quarter moon.

“They have left their usual haunts and howes in order to join you, so greet them warmly.

“You don’t know how far some of them may have come in space or time, so it’s a good idea to turn off the television and most electric lights, which the oldest of the company may find glaring. If you have a fireplace, make a fire. Otherwise, light plenty of candles.”

From “Take Something Like a Star” in Complete Poems of Robert Frost by Robert Frost:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.

Five Days to Christmas: Yule Frogs!

From “A Hearty Christmas Greeting” in Vintage Christmas Traditions edited by Linda Davies:

“We don’t associate Christmas with frogs today, [but] the verse on this Victorian card comes with a strict lesson:

Four jovial Froggies a skating would go;
They asked their mamma,
But she’d sternly said, ‘No!’
And they all came to grief in a beautiful row.
There’s a sweet Christmas moral for one not too slow.
Just so!”

From Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders:

“In the 1880s German-imported ‘dresdens’ came into fashion, embossed boxes of pressed cardboard, lacquered to look like polished metal, in shapes that included ‘dogs, cats, suns, moons… frogs, turtles… a whole sea full of fish… a virtual zoo of exotic creatures, including polar bears, camels, storks, eagles and peacocks’, as well as items from the modern world: bicycles, skates, sleds and ships. Unlike the cornucopias, dresdens were luxury items, many costing more than their contents: in 1882, golden dresdens shaped like angels cost a whopping 12¢ each.”

From “A True Tale” by John Berwick Harwood in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, edited by Tara Moore:

“After a short pause my aunt took her part in the conversation, and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend which the old lady told exceedingly well. One tale led to another. Every one was called on in turn to contribute to the public entertainment, and story after story, always relating to demonology and witchcraft, succeeded. It was Christmas, the season for such tales; and the old room, with its dusky walls and pictures, and vaulted roof, drinking up the light so greedily, seemed just fitted to give effect to such legendary lore….

“The huge logs crackled and burnt with glowing warmth; the blood-red glare of the Yule log flashed on the faces of the listeners and narrator, on the portraits, and the holly wreathed about their frames, and the upright old dame in her antiquated dress and trinkets, like one of the originals of the pictures stepped from the canvas to join our circle. It threw a shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels. No wonder that the ghost and goblin stories had a new zest….”

Six Days to Christmas: Angels and Nutcrackers and Wintry Blues

From “A Country Christmas” by Louisa May Alcott in A Vintage Christmas: A Collection of Classic Stories and Poems:

“It was very lovely on the hill, for far as the eye could reach lay the wintry landscape sparkling with the brief beauty of sunshine on virgin snow. Pines sighed overhead, hardy birds flitted to and fro, and in all the trodden spots rose the little spires of evergreen ready for its Christmas duty. Deeper in the wood sounded the measured ring of axes, the crash of falling trees, while the red shirts of the men added color to the scene, and a fresh wind brought the aromatic breath of newly cloven hemlock and pine.”

From “The Second of the Three Spirits” in A Christmas Carol and Other Writings by Charles Dickens:

“It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare….

“It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible….”

From “The Preparation” in The Victorian Christmas Book by Antony Miall:

“In medieval times the following significance was given to colour: White was emblematical of light, purity, virginity, faith, joy, and life. Carmine red, of Christ’s passion and death, of royalty, of the Holy Spirit, and of fire. Blue of truth, constancy, piety. Dark red, of anger, war, and bloodshed. Gold and bright yellow, of the sun, of brightness, marriage, and fruitfulness. Dingy yellow, of deceit and jealousy. Green, of hope, of spring, prosperity, victory, immortality. Violet, of love, truth, humility, passion, and suffering. Black, of death, mourning, humiliation; also of the earth….

“Blue with gold stars, of heaven….”

Seven Days to Christmas: When Nature Does the Decorating

From “Before the Ice is in the Pools” in The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson:

Before the ice is in the pools,
  Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
  Is tarnished by the snow,

Before the fields have finished,
  Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
  Will arrive to me!

From “The Months” by Sara Coleridge in The RHS Book of Garden Verse by the Royal Horticultural Society:

Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are whirling fast.
Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat.

From “The Second of the Three Spirits” in A Christmas Carol and Other Writings by Charles Dickens:

“The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.

“It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone….

“Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”

Eight Days to Christmas: Red and Green

From Old Christmas by Washington Irving:

“The old halls of castles and manor — houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly — the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled round the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.”

From The Victorian Christmas by Anna Selby:

“[If] the Victorians could not be said to have invented Christmas itself, they certainly invented many of its most popular trappings. The Christmas pudding, the Christmas card, the Christmas pantomime, Christmas crackers, most of our famous Christmas carols (along with the earlier traditional ones they embellished and generally improved) and Father Christmas himself in the form we know him today. It was Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree to England from his native Germany and, after a picture showing the royal family crowding around it in wonder, the Christmas tree became, within a very short time — along with the red-coated Father Christmas and the red-breasted robin — symbolic of the English Christmas. Prince Albert also made gingerbread and other German confectionary an essential part of the English Christmas and he is often regarded as one of the men who invented the Victorian Christmas. The other is, without doubt, Charles Dickens. So, draw up a chair to the roaring fire and let Dickens introduce you in the Victorian idea of Christmas.”

From “A Christmas Tree” in A Christmas Carol and Other Writings by Charles Dickens:

“Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. I begin to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.

“Straight, in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top…. I look into my youngest Christmas recollections!”