By Daniel Deagler
What do “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Frosty The Snowman” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” all have in common?
They are all Christmas songs that don’t so much as mention Christmas. They’re songs about the magic of the winter landscape, of playing outside as the snowfall gently blankets the world, of later retreating back in the house to the warmth and comfort of the fireside. These songs should, in theory, take us right up to March, but they don’t because they were gobbled up by the voracious beast that is Christmas. And if anyone were foolish enough to play these songs in mid-January, even during a blizzard, they’d be met with: “Why is this on? Christmas is over.”
Got that right. More than anything else, the real meaning of January is that Christmas is so over.
Let’s be clear: it’s time for it to be over. In the span of 62 days we’ve just celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve and New Years Day. The year is, shall we say, back-loaded. One wonders what intoxicated person set it up this way.
Still, we’ve gone from too much fun to zero fun, from too many rich desserts to no dessert. Taking down Christmas decorations is a lot like driving home from vacation. It’s the mirror image of the same activity but utterly devoid of pleasure.
Calendar makers will often use little motifs to represent the various months — hearts for February, pumpkins for October, etc. More often than not the motif chosen for January will be some New Year’s Eve symbol like a popping Champagne bottle or a party hat with noisemakers and confetti. But of course, those things have little to do with January. They’re symbols of holidays in the rear-view mirror. The most honest motif for January would be the discarded Christmas tree out by the curb waiting for the trash truck.
January is the coldest month of the year because it has so few hours of daylight. (December is technically darker, but it’s not as cold as January because the ocean absorbs heat all summer, and it takes awhile for it to dissipate.) A good snowfall in January can stay on the ground for three weeks or more. Look out your window. If you like it cold and dark, January is the month for you.
January is named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways. He is a two-headed fellow facing both backward and forward. How very appropriate it was for those clever Romans to call the year’s first month, the doorway to the year, after the doorway god. Except that January was not originally the first month of the Roman year but was, in fact, the 11th. This explains why September, October, November, December, whose names mean 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th month, respectively, are off by two and why February seems like it was just tacked onto the end. It was just tacked on the end. (January was shifted to its present first-month position in about 450 B.C.)
The original Roman calendar had only 10 named months. There were 61 days of winter from which January and February would eventually be carved that weren’t even a part of the calendar. It was just a dead zone not worth naming. (Imagine if that’s when your birthday fell. No cake for you.)
In the Middle Ages peasant farmers spent the winter indoors just trying to survive. They slept a lot and ate as little as they could get away with so as to make their food last until spring. Most livestock had been slaughtered and salted in late autumn. What remained was brought inside with them adding not only warmth but an ambience that must have been truly breathtaking.
January does have some positive points: Half-priced calendars, the NFL playoffs. (In this regard, our Eagles are like the perfect houseguests. They like to visit but they don’t stay long.)
And of course there’s something very nice about being warm and cozy inside your home with family and friends when “the weather outside is frightful.” It’s a small but real pleasure to sit around the fire “as we pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.” And we don’t need blinking lights and or inflatable lawn reindeer to enjoy that. It just a shame we don’t have a few good songs to help us celebrate the simple joys that even January offers.
Daniel Deagler is the former manager of the Flourtown Post Office and a freelance writer for local publications. The current Postmaster is Gene Ballard.