[More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.]
Now is the darkest hour of all the year, the winter solstice. We are arrived at the antipodes of brave midsummer, when it was once the custom for men to while away the hours of the short night with bonfires and a blowing of conches and a making of wild young marriages, that men might hold the earth for the sun god during his brief descent beneath the horizon. But at this season of the year, when the sun was a pallid blur behind a junco-colored sky, a darkness fell upon the spirits of all men, and a splinter of ice was in their hearts. To some of us the winter solstice is an unimportant phase of terrestrial astronomy; of old it must have produced an emotional reaction which a Christian can only experience on Good Friday, and the breath-held Saturday that follows.
It is not the cold of far northern lands that drives the human animal to despair; cold is tingling, exciting, healthful, and it can, in a limited way, be overcome. It is the darkness that conquers the spirit, when the northern sun does not rise until late, only to skim low upon the horizon for an hour or two, and set. Now indeed is Balder slain of the mistletoe. Now life is at its lowest ebb, and the mind conceives a little what it will be like when the sun has burned to a red ember, its immense volume dissipated by constant radiation, and the earth drifted far out into space, the shrinking sun no longer able to hold her child upon a leash so close.
When I set out to buy a Christmas tree, I have my choice of long-needled pines, red cedars, and fragrant spruces with narrow spire-like tops, the branches beautifully up-curved at the dark tips. But I am looking for a balsam, which has this inestimable advantage over all the spruces, that even in the warmth of the house its needles do not drop.
You may know a balsam from a spruce in this way, that the leaves of the balsam are flattish, and the cones are borne erect; on many of the branches the leaves are two-ranked, so that they appear to form a flat spray, while in the spruces the needles are scattered, bristling out in every direction from the stem, to the touch seeming four-sided; and the cones of a fir always droop.
Time was, not long ago, when a man bought a Christmas tree in all innocence, feeling that it was no really material expenditure but a symbol, almost intangible, which gave beauty and good cheer to all who beheld it. Now come the tree conservationists, to reproach us with the forests that we slay to make a brief holiday, to let them die then ingloriously upon the rubbish heap. But balsam is only used in a small way in the crafts and sciences, while the spruces, by far the commonest holiday trees, have, otherwise, only the pulp mill for their destiny.
And the Christmas trees cut for the city across the river would not suffice to put out the combined Sunday editions of its newspapers in one week, bearing into every home their freight of unchallenged intellectual poison--the brutal humor, the worldly inanity, the crime and psuedo-science.
It was Francis of Assisi, I believe, the man who called the wind his brother and the birds his sisters, who gave the world the custom of exhibiting créche in church, where barn and hay, soft-breathing beasts, flowing breast and hungry babe, shepherd and star are elevated for delight. One who has spent a Christmas in some southern country, where an early Christianity still reigns, will understand how all else that to us means the holy festival is quite lacking there. It was originally, and still sometimes is, no more than a special Mass, scarcely as significant as Assumption, much less so than Easter. Out of the North the barbarian mind, forest born, brought tree worship, whether of fir or holly or yule log. It took mistletoe from the druids, stripped present-giving from New Year (where in Latin lands it still so largely stays) and made of Christmas a children's festival, set to the tune of the beloved joyful carols. It glorified woman and child and the brotherhood of men in a way that the Church in, let us say, the second century, dreamed not on.
You will search the four Gospels in vain for a hint of the day or the month when Christ was born. December twenty-fifth was already being celebrated in the ancient world as the birthplace of the sun god Mithras, who came out of a rock three days after the darkest of the year. His birth was foretold of a star that shepherds and magi beheld. The ancient Angles had long been wont to hold this day sacred as Modranecht or Mother Night. This still do we flout old winter with green tree, and old morality with child worship.