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Lange: Looking Both Ways

12/31/09 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange celebrates January - as both an end - and a beginning.

(LANGE) It's the eve of the first of January - a fascinating month.  The ancient Saxons called it the Wolf Month; the eastern Europeans, the Ice Month.  But the ancient Romans considered winter a monthless period.  They resumed keeping time again in March, which they counted as the first month.  For me, it's time to look both forward and back: back to a year remembered in photographs and summarized by categories in my checkbook; forward to brightening days, skiing snow, and finally the first fluid motion of my canoe in an ice-cold pond.

That dual vision is responsible for the month's name, which derives from the Roman god Janus.  You've seen his picture; he has two faces, looking in opposite directions.  He was the god of doors, beginnings and endings, and departures and returns.  Roman armies on their way to and from war sometimes marched through a portal dedicated to Janus.

In earlier New England there were plenty of indoor tasks to pass the month.  I used to have a farmer's journal from 1875.  I was surprised how busy he was.  Splitting and bundling shingles for sale in the spring; making wooden spiles and buckets for sugar season; shaving and fitting new handles for hay forks, hammers, and axes; repairing harness; and felling firewood trees and drawing them into the yard for splitting in the spring.  The journal-keeper was young, and surprised me by the number of parties and dances he went to.  He seemed to enjoy the winter parties more than the summer ones because the cold ride in the sleigh meant they had to to snuggle up, and it was always dark before they started home.

We have maxims to get us through the month.  "As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens."  New England weather lags from five to six weeks behind the calendar.  The coldest follows the January thaw, which traditionally occurs during the third week of the month.  The snow by then on the ground reflects the sunlight until late February, when the sun's growing warmth makes it irresistible.  Here's another one: "Half your wood and half your hay should still be left on Candlemas Day."  Candlemas is February second, which we call Groundhog Day.  It's right in the middle of meteorological winter, which is why half your supplies should be left.  I'm watching my wood pile, and I'm in good shape this year.

Meanwhile, Mother and I have revived our January Scrabble series.  On long winter evenings we play at the card table with a floor lamp and a couple of cups of coffee.  The only thing missing is our old dog, who used to sleep by our feet as we played.  We've begun to detach our egos from the scores, so we have more fun than we did years ago.  And since January is also a time for looking forward, I like to speculate that future winter evenings, we'll keep on getting better - or at least we'll think so!

This is Willem Lange, wintering in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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