Poem: "My Love Is Like to Ice" by Edmund Spenser. Public Domain.
My Love Is Like to Ice
My love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told,
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice,
And ice, which is congealed with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
That it can alter all the course of kind.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in the year 1732 that Benjamin Franklin first published Poor Richard's Almanack in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Franklin had recently become the proprietor of a new print shop, and almanacs were among the most profitable books being published at the time.
Franklin's almanac included weather reports, astronomical notices of the different phases of the moon, eclipses, tides, tables of English kings, dates of court terms, announcements of Quaker meetings, town and city fairs, tables of distances between various towns, and a calendar. Franklin included short witty proverbs about life as filler between the other material, but it was the proverbs that became famous. He borrowed them from a variety of sources; including Native American folklore, farmer's superstitions, as well as quotations from authors and politicians.
But even though he didn't invent many of his proverbs, he rewrote them with the simplest language possible. He knew that many early colonists were semi-literate and so he tried to write in such a way that they could be easily understood and easily remembered. Franklin wanted his advice to be useful to the early colonists, and it often had to do with the themes of frugality and courtesy, sometimes mixed with a bit of cynical humor, such as "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead" and, "Fish and visitors smell after three days" and, "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealth and wise" and, "A penny saved is a penny earned."
It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure. His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842) had flopped, and he was suddenly strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit had been satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme.
He got the idea for the book in late October of 1843, the story of the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge, who has so little Christmas spirit that he wants his assistant Bob Cratchit to work on Christmas Day.
Dickens struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. He no longer had a publisher so he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in hopes of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling six thousand copies the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went to second and third editions.
At the time, Christmas was on the decline and not celebrated much. England was in the midst of an Industrial Revolution and most people were incredibly poor, having to work as much as 16 hour days, 6 days a week. Most people couldn't afford to celebrate Christmas, and Puritans believed it was a sin to do so. They felt that celebrating Christmas too extravagantly would be an insult to Christ. The famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher said that Christmas was a "foreign day" and he wouldn't even recognize it.
When Dickens's novel became a huge bestseller in both the United States and England, A Christmas Carol reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, of cooking a feast, spending time with family, and spreading warmth and cheer. Dickens helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none endured as well as A Christmas Carol.
It's the birthday of Constance Garnett, born Constance Black in Brighton, England (1861). She's best known for providing the first widely available English translations of the important Russian novels of the 19th century. After marrying the literary critic Edward Garnett, she became friends with some Russian exiles and decided to learn the language. She loved it so much that she traveled to St. Petersburg in 1893 and became friends with many writers and revolutionaries.
When she returned home, she decided to begin translating as much Russian literature as she could. She somehow managed to translate about 5,000 words a day. She finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in six months, and went on to translate Dostoyevsky's complete works, about two and a half million words long. In many cases, her translations of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and others were the first versions read by English and American writers in the early 20th century.
It's the birthday of novelist Eleanor Hodgman Porter, born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). She was the author of many popular sentimental novels, but she's remembered today as the author of the novel Pollyanna (1913), about a young girl who has to go live with her aunt after the death of her parents, but who always tries to see the positive side of things despite her hardships.
It's the birthday of Jean Genet, born in Paris, France (1910). He wrote Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and The Balcony (1956).
Poems: "High Flight (An Airman's Ecstasy)" by John Gillespie Magee Jr. from The Complete Works of John Magee, The Pilot Poet. © This England Books. Reprinted with permission. And "Night flight" by Marjorie Saiser from Lost in Seward County. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.
High Flight (An Airman's Ecstasy)
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark nor even eagle flew;
And while, with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God
From 18F I see only the wing,
see only metal and rivets and painted black arrows
and partially worn-off letters saying things like NO STEP.
From 18F, or anywhere on this plane,
I could see, if I want to, the video.
I could, evidently, watch ads for Buzz Lightyear, the series.
But I am watching us, the community
of 1090 to Denver. We are facing forward
as though in a tunnel or tube,
dots of light in a row above our heads.
We are ranks of readers, sleepers.
or we are the cast of Our Town;
we are cast as the dear departed,
sitting onstage on our chairssupposed to be graves
looking straight ahead, talking among ourselves,
never looking at Emily, the living,
when she comes to visit the cemetery.
We are not turning toward Emily;
we are numbers and letters facing forward.
From 18F I see we are regular in our posture,
regular in our habits.
In my row we are raising similar cups from similar trays,
now this head, now that one, lowers to drink.
One by one we sip our mutual nectar;
one by one we set it down.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Benedict, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). She's the author of The Beginner's Book of Dreams (1988) and Almost (2001).
It's the birthday of poet, novelist and essayist Andrei Codrescu, born in an old medieval fortress city in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (1946). He's best known for his essays, collected in books such as The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans (1993) and The Dog with the Chip in His Neck (1996).
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Hortense Calisher, born in Manhattan (1911). Though she has written several novels, she's best known for the many short stories she published in The New Yorker magazine, most of which are compiled in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975). Her most recent book is Tattoo for a Slave, which came out in 2004.
Poem: "Father's Song" by Gregory Orr from The Caged Owl. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.
Yesterday, against admonishment,
my daughter balanced on the couch back,
fell and cut her mouth.
Because I saw it happen I knew
she was not hurt, and yet
a child's blood's so red
it stops a father's heart.
My daughter cried her tears;
I held some ice
against her lip.
That was the end of it.
Round and round; bow and kiss
I try to teach her caution;
she tries to teach me risk.
Literary and Historical Notes:
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. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.
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 Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even war were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.
It's the birthday of the essayist Edward Hoagland, born in New York City (1932). He is one of the few writers working today who writes almost nothing but personal essays.
He's written about his own thoughts on go-go dancers, jury duty, boxing gyms, mountain lions, suicide, and the loss of his eyesight. A new collection of his nature writing Hoagland on Nature came out in 2003.
For most of his life, he suffered from a terrible stutter, and so to avoid awkward social situations he became an obsessive walker. When he was in college in Boston, he estimates that he walked about fifty miles a week all around the city. He also grew to love animals, because they didn't require him to talk, and he worked a job as a lion keeper in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But most of all, his stutter made him admire language, because it came with such difficulty. He said, "Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a devoted writer at twenty, I worked like a dog choosing each word."
After college, he moved to New York City trying to be a novelist, and his first two books got generally good reviews. But his third novel was such a failure that he decided he needed to get away from everything for a while and went up to live in the remote wilderness of British Columbia. He walked for hundreds of miles through the forests and along the rivers, and when he got home he published his first book of non-fiction Notes from the Century Before: A Journal From British Columbia (1969), and it was a big success.
It's the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the Russian colony of Georgia (1879). Stalin was born into a poverty-stricken family. His mother wanted him to become a priest, so he enrolled in an Orthodox theological seminary. He was expelled from school after he decided he was more interested in revolutionary politics than religion.
Stalin was one of Lenin's close associates during the Russian Revolution that began in 1917. He returned from fighting in Russia's civil war in 1920 and suddenly became gravely ill with appendicitis. It was thought that he might die. But a doctor performed a risky operation and Stalin made a full recovery. He completed his rise to power after Lenin died in 1924.
He ruled over communist Russia through World War II, and it was his decision to take control of most of Eastern Europe at the end of the war. In the last twenty-five years of his life, he held absolute power over more people than anyone in history, before or since.
He may also have been responsible for more human deaths than anyone in history. Historians aren't sure how many people he ordered to be executed in his many political purges, but some estimate about 20 million. Of the hundred or so people who belonged to his ruling inner circle, he eventually had more than half of them murdered.
He was also deeply interested in the arts and was a big reader. His favorite writers were Balzac and Zola, Hemingway, and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved Last of the Mohicans so much that he sometimes dressed up as an Indian to entertain guests.
It's the birthday of the novelist Anthony Powell, born in London (1905). He wrote the longest novel in the English language, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he published in twelve volumes, starting in 1951. He wrote the whole thing, more than a million words, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.
Poem: "Lute Music" by Kenneth Rexroth from Sacramental Acts. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.
The Earth will be going on a long time
Before it finally freezes;
Men will be on it; they will take names,
Give their deeds reasons.
We will be here only
As chemical constituents
A small franchise indeed.
Right now we have lives,
Corpuscles, Ambitions, Caresses,
Like everybody had once
Here at the year's end, at the feast
Of birth, let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves,
While the earth rolls away under us
Into unknown snows and summers,
Into untraveled spaces of the stars.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). He is remembered for a few short poems, which he said were "pickled in anthological brine," including "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy," and "Mr. Flood's Party."
Unlike many poets, who have to work all manner odd jobs in order to support themselves, Robinson rarely did anything in his life other than write poetry. Before he made a name for himself as a poet, he was known in his hometown as an idler and a failure, writing poetry that attracted little attention. But somehow, his poetry made it into the hands of Theodore Roosevelt, who became a big fan. He got Robinson a job at a Customs House to help him earn a living while he wrote. All he had to do was show up at his desk, read the morning newspaper, and leave it on his chair to prove he had been there.
He went on to become one of the most popular poets of his lifetime. After he began to support himself with his poetry, he didn't get married, he didn't travel, he didn't teach or give public readings.
It's the birthday of the bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). In the 1920's he was drawn to the artistic community in Chicago's West Side, where speakeasies with names like the Dill Pickle Club and the Wind Blew Inn were full of politics, theater, jazz and poetry. It was there that Kenneth Rexroth became one of the first poets to try reading his poetry to the accompaniment of jazz music.
Then he got involved in left-wing politics and traveled around the country, speaking from soapboxes for the International Workers of the World, supporting himself horse-wrangling, sheep-herding, and selling pamphlets that promised a cure for constipation.
He eventually settled in San Francisco, and California changed the way he wrote poetry. His early poems had been full of references to Greek mythology and philosophy, but after his arrival in California, he began to write poems about camping trips and fly fishing and love affairs, in addition to politics.
Kenneth Rexroth published more than fifty more books of poetry and criticism in his lifetime, including The Signature of All Things (1950) and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980). The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth came out in 2002.
Kenneth Rexroth said, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust." And "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."
It was on this day in 1894 that a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason. He'd been accused of passing secrets to the German government. Back in Paris, a number of officers soon realized that the actual traitor was a man named Esterhazy, and Dreyfus that had been framed, in large part because he was Jewish.
The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, tore France apart. Everyone in the country felt as though they had to choose sides. The affair caused rifts within families. People fought duals over it. There was talk of civil war. Anti-Semitic groups led riots and smashed Jewish shop-fronts, attacked synagogues, and desecrated Jewish graveyards. There were artists and writers on both sides of the debate. Manet, Pissarro, and Monet were for Dreyfus. Cézanne, Rodin, Renoir and Degas were all against. Marcel Proust, Anatole France and Mallarme were among the writers for Dreyfus. Valery and Jules Verne were against.
Eventually, Dreyfus was called back from exile for a second trial, and it was the most thoroughly reported event ever at that point in history. 300 journalists attended the trial, six telegraph wires were installed in Paris for foreign correspondents, and on the first day of the trial 650,000 words were transmitted over the telegraph wire. Dreyfus was convicted again in his second trial, but the President gave him a pardon. The French army didn't publicly acknowledge his innocence until 1995.
This episode of The Writer's Almanac has been corrected. Arthur Rimbaud was not associated with either side of the Dreyfus Affair; he passed away 4 years prior to the events surrounding Alfred Dreyfus.
Poem: "People Like Us" by Robert Bly from Morning Poems. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission.
People Like Us
There are more like us. All over the world
There are confused people, who can't remember
The name of their dog when they wake up, and
Who love God but can't remember where
He was when they went to sleep. It's
All right. The world cleanses itself this way.
A wrong number occurs to you in the middle
Of the night, you dial it, it rings just in time
To save the house. And the second-story man
Gets the wrong address, where the insomniac lives,
And he's lonely , and they talk, and the thief
Goes back to college. Even in graduate school,
You can wander into the wrong classroom,
And hear great poems lovingly spoken
By the wrong professor. And you find your soul
And greatness has a defender, and even in death
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902) and raised in Missoula, Montana. He wrote the autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It (1976).
It was on this day in 1823 that the famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was first published. It begins, "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
Fourteen years after its first publication, an editor attributed the poem to a wealthy professor of classical literature named Clement Clarke Moore. In the last few years, new evidence has come out that a Revolutionary War major named Henry Livingston Jr. may have been the actual author of "The Night Before Christmas." His family has letters describing his recitation of the poem before it was originally published, and literary scholars have found many similarities between his work and "The Night Before Christmas." He was also three quarters Dutch, and many of the details in the poem, including names of the reindeer, have Dutch origins.
It's the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt, born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). She went to the writing program at Bennington College, and it was there that she began to work on her first novel The Secret History, about a group of intellectual college students who form a secret murderous cult. It sold more than five million copies when it came out in 1992. Tartt was just twenty-eight years old. The book earned her near-instant celebrity, so Tartt received a lot of press about the ten-year delay in the release of her second novel, The Little Friend (2002), about a little girl trying to solve the mystery of her older brother's death.
It's the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, born in Chicago (1860). She was a well-known poet and lecturer on poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Then in 1911, she took a trip around the world, and it was on that trip that she conceived of the idea for a literary magazine devoted entirely to poetry, which would be open to new names and new styles.
The result was Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, first published in 1912. Monroe produced the magazine with foreign editor Ezra Pound, and her magazine was one of the first to publish such writers as Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams. It was Monroe who first published T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Harriet Monroe didn't live long enough to see what has become of her magazine. But she once said: "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better."
It's the birthday of the poet Robert Bly born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He served in the Navy during WWII, and then entered Harvard University, where, he later said, "One day while studying a Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life."
Bly is the author of more than 30 books of his own poetry, including Silence In The Snowy Fields (1962) and The Light Around The Body (1967.)
Robert Bly, who said, "I know a lot of men who are healthier at age fifty than they have ever been before, because a lot of their fear is gone... "By the time a man is 35 he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life."
Bly also wrote, "Being a poet in the United States has meant for me years of confusion, blundering, and self-doubt. The confusion lies in not knowing whether I am writing in the American language or the English or, more exactly, how much of the musical power of Chaucer, Marvell, and Keats can be kept in free verse. Not knowing how to live, or even how to make a living, results in blunders. And the self-doubt comes from living in small towns."
Poem: "Cooling" by Albert Garcia from Skunk Talk. © Bear Star Press.
If I closed my eyes
and focused on the grittysmooth
pleasure of pear in my mouth
and listened to your voice
humming to our daughter,
your attempt to soothe her
into sleepif I had simply held
that pear flesh with my tongue,
letting it dissolve, savoring it
like a memory,
if your notes could linger
longer between these rooms
if you would come in
after the child is asleep
and share with me
the last few bites
before we turn in, if you would
hum to me something old
if I could keep this evening
in a drawer
that when opened would release
a breeze like the one outside, the one
that has been there all day
moving the curtains
but which is now finally cooling
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's Christmas Eve, and it was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and the soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year's Day. In one area, the opposing sides played a soccer match together.
British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien disapproved of the truce, and they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve in the remaining years of the war. Troops were also rotated with regularity to keep them from growing too familiar with the enemy troops in the close quarters of trench warfare. The Christmas truce was a war tradition of the 19th century, and its disappearance marked the end of wartime protocols of that time.
It's the birthday of journalist I.F. (Isidor Feinstein) Stone, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1907). He got his first job as a newspaper reporter when he was still in high school, and eventually dropped out of college in order to work as a fulltime reporter. He bounced around various jobs at left-wing daily newspapers in New York City, especially the New York Post. He also worked for The Nation magazine.
In 1952, Stone was working for the New York Daily Compass when that paper folded. It was the height of the Red Scare, and suddenly Stone was too left-wing to get a job. Desperate to find some sort of journalistic income, Stone decided to go into business for himself. With his wife's help, an investment of $6,500 and the mailing list from two defunct liberal newspapers, he launched I. F. Stone's Weekly, which he called, "My very own little flea-bit publication."
The I.F. Stone Weekly was basically just a four page pamphlet written by Stone, examining and criticizing the activities in Washington. What made Stone revolutionary was that he didn't try to interview Washington officials to get the inside scoop. Instead, he just read Washington documents. He found that if you actually read the documents put out by the pentagon and compared them to what the politicians were saying, you could uncover all kinds of dishonesty.
Over time, Stone became a hero to many investigative journalists, and the circulation of his one-man newsletter soared to 70,000. Stone's columns were collected in such books as The Haunted Fifties (1963), In a Time of Torment (1967), and Polemics and Prophecies, 1967-1970 (1971).
I.F. Stone said, "Some people become radical out of hatred. Others become radical out of love and sympathy. I come out of the second class. I have hated very few people... I have faith, despite the imperfections of the human race, that a better society, a better world, a more just world, a kindlier world can come into being."
It's the birthday of the mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, born in New York City (1929). She worked as a secretary in an advertising agency for three years. She spent a year as a stewardess, flying around Europe and Asia. Clark began taking writing classes at New York University. Then, in 1964, Clark's husband died of a heart attack, just as her father had. She suddenly had to support the family by herself, and so she began writing radio scripts, and eventually decided to write books.
She was inspired by a newspaper article about a woman accused of murdering her own children, and she began a suspense novel about a woman who's the chief suspect in her children's disappearance. When she finished the book, it was turned down by several publishers because they said that a novel about children in jeopardy would upset women readers. But when it finally came out in 1975, Where Are the Children? (1975) became a huge bestseller. And all of her novels have been best-sellers ever since.
It's the birthday of the poet who wrote "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold, born in Middlesex, England (1822).
It was on this day in 1814 that the Treaty of Ghent was signed at Ghent, Belgium, an agreement intended to end the War of 1812.
It was on this day in 1801 that the steam engine transported its first passengers, in London, England. Richard Trevithick invented the high-pressure steam engine in 1800, and built the carriage used in London on Christmas Eve the following year. By 1804, he had constructed a steam locomotive for use in Wales, the first of its kind.
Poem: Excerpt of "Christmas" by George Herbert. Public Domain.
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, No hymn for thee?
My soul's a shepherd too: a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word; the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the daylight hours.
Then we sill chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We will sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly,
Then we will sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n his beams sing, and my music shine.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of scientist and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England (1642). He attended Cambridge University from 1661 to 1665. In less than two years, he had mastered all the math that his teachers could teach him, and so he began to work on his own mathematical problems. And so it was while he was still a college undergraduate that he invented differential calculus, a new way of analyzing curved shapes.
As a professor of mathematics, Newton made discoveries about the nature of light and color, and he developed a more advance telescope. But then he began to think about why planets travel in orbits around the sun, and why they never stopped. Those questions resulted in his laws of thermodynamics: that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Newton published his findings on motion and gravity in a book called Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687).
Newton said, "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
Hanukkah begins tonight at sundown. It's also called the Feast of Lights, a celebration of the reclaiming of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in 168 BC.
Today is Christmas Day, celebrated by Christians since the 4th century AD. Early Christians believed that the only important holiday of the year was Easter, but in the 4th century, a heretical Christian sect started claiming that Jesus had only been a spirit, and had never had a body. The Church decided to emphasize Jesus' bodily humanity by celebrating his birth.
Most Christian theologians believe that Jesus was actually born in the spring, because the scripture mentions shepherds letting their animals roam in the fields at night. The Christian church probably chose December 25th as the official birth date because of competition with pagan cults, who celebrated the winter solstice on that date.
The problem with combining Christian and pagan traditions was that the winter solstice had traditionally been a time of drunken feasting and revelry, and many Christmas celebrations became similarly festive. Many preachers began to speak out against the celebration of Christmas, and after the Protestant Reformation, Puritans outlawed Christmas altogether.
It was only in the mid 19th century that Christmas became a domestic holiday associated with family. The transformation was due in part to government crackdowns on wild street parties. In 1828, New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent Christmas riot. Eventually it became more fashionable to stay at home with family than to go out to big parties.
One practice that endures from pagan traditions is the singing of carols. The word "carol" comes from the Greek "choros," which is a circular dance accompanied by singing, usually to celebrate fertility. After most Europeans became Christians, they began to write and perform folk songs at Christmas time to express their joy at baby Jesus' birth.
But the church often discouraged the singing of carols because they were considered too secular, and the practice of caroling almost died out under church pressure. When Christmas became a more domestic holiday in the mid-1800s, there was a carol renaissance, and many of the most popular carols were written in that period, including, "Away in a Manger," "O Little Town of Bethlehem", and "Silent Night" written in Austria in 1818.
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