Dec. 21, 2013

Christmas Light

by May Sarton

When everyone had gone
I sat in the library
With the small silent tree,
She and I alone.
How softly she shone!

And for the first time then
For the first time this year,
I felt reborn again,
I knew love's presence near.

Love distant, love detached
And strangely without weight,
Was with me in the night
When everyone had gone
And the garland of pure light
Stayed on, stayed on.

"Christmas Light" by May Sarton from Collected Poems. © W. W. Norton, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In the Northern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It's officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest-known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Some ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfires to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires. In ancient Egypt and Syria, people celebrated the winter solstice as the sun's birthday. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even wars were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.

Henry David Thoreau said: "In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends."

On this day in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the shores of Massachusetts. The Mayflower carried enough furniture for 19 cottages, as well as pigs, goats, guns, journals and Bibles. Native American tribes had already skirmished with the Pilgrims as they explored the banks of Cape Cod. William Bradford, who became the governor of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that they reached the new continent and found nothing but "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men."

For the first year, the Pilgrims and Indians lived peacefully together. They signed a peace treaty in the spring and had a plentiful harvest. But there was trouble the following January. The chief of a tribe called the Narragansett wanted no part in the peace treaty, and he sent Bradford a sheaf of arrows wrapped inside a snakeskin. Bradford sent the snakeskin back to him, stuffing it with bullets. Then the pilgrims built a wall around their village, 11 feet high and a mile around.

A year later, in March 1623, Bradford sent a group of heavily armed men to a neighboring camp of English settlers. They had been told that the Indians there were planning a massacre. Led by Miles Standish, they arrived at the village and cornered four Indians. Standish took them into a hut and killed them with a knife. Then he ordered his men to kill all the Indians in the village, but some escaped into a swamp. He cut off one of the Indians' heads and brought it back to Plymouth, placing it on a spike for all to see. Later, a former minister to the Pilgrims sent a letter saying, "Oh! How happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any."

It's the birthday of the essayist Edward Hoagland (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). His first books were what he called "documentary novels," books like Cat Man (1956), which was based on what he had seen working as a lion keeper for a traveling circus, and The Circle Home (1960), about a washed-up boxer.

Hoagland refers to himself as peripatetic and happy when going about with Mississippi muskrat trappers or riding mules down the Rio Grande. So in the mid-1960s, he set out for British Columbia to ride the rivers, follow the trails, and talk with old-timers about the heyday of the homesteaders and prospectors. He began keeping a journal of his trip, which became the nonfiction book Notes from the Century Before (1969) and led him to writing essays instead of novels.

For Hoagland, the essay was a freer form than fiction, and he wrote on everything from tugboats and taxidermy to jury duty and suicide, to go-go dancers and the time he mailed his mutilated draft card to President Johnson. His first collection was The Courage of Turtles (1971), followed by Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973) and numerous others. His most recent book of essays is Children Are Diamonds (2013), which was published earlier this year.

It's the birthday of baseball player Josh Gibson, born in Buena Vista, Georgia (1911). He was called the black Babe Ruth, a star of the Negro Leagues before major league baseball was integrated. He was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, where his teammates included Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston, and for the Homestead Grays, which won nine Negro League pennants in a row. He is said to have led the Negro National League in home runs for 10 consecutive seasons and he's credited with a lifetime batting average of .362.

It was on this day in 1913 that the very first crossword puzzle appeared in a newspaper. It was the invention of a journalist named Arthur Wynne, who worked for The New York World. He called it a "Word-Cross," but the typesetter made a mistake and called it a "Cross-Word" and the name stuck. Early on, the editors found it difficult to avoid making errors in the puzzles, so they decided to drop it. Hundreds of addicted readers wrote in to protest, so it was reinstated after one week.

In 1924, two men named Richard Simon and Lincoln Schuster decided to set up a publishing house, and as they were casting about for ideas of what to publish, they decided to try a book of crossword puzzles. That book sold half a million copies in less than a year. The book's success launched a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and helped put Simon & Schuster on the publishing map. The enthusiasm for crosswords also helped to drive up the sales for dictionaries and encyclopedias. Libraries were forced to ration the use of reference books. By the end of the 1930s, most daily newspapers featured crossword puzzles. One of the last newspapers to do so was The New York Times, which finally began printing a daily puzzle in 1950.

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