The winter solstice has long been a time of celebration, going back as far as Neolithic times. Many cultures around the world have indulged, and still indulge, in some kind of winter festival to mark the turn of the year. The waning daylight hours begin to wax again, and, although the next couple of months will still be mighty cold, the increasing sunshine brings the hope of spring and rebirth.
Meanwhile, humans being human, and therefore always looking to make the best of things, a host of celebratory traditions arose to take the sting out of a bleak midwinter. Many revolve around prayer and worship, eating and drinking, making music and dancing, and, most importantly, keeping warm. But many also revolve around the sharing of legends and fables and stories. With the rise of Western children’s literature, which came into full flower in the 19th Century, many of those winter legends and fables and stories were adapted or created especially for children.
Project Gutenberg has an extensive Christmas bookshelf, but there are also storybooks devoted to winter and the New Year. One of the loveliest in the collection is King Winter, a man-shaped little book in English verse but published in Hamburg, Germany, around 1859.
On a cold, gray day, by the fireside, Mamma tells her children of King Winter, and “Jack Frost, his man,” and Queen Winter, who all live in a snow palace in the “Frozen Zone.” King Winter makes an annual world tour, and to make things comfortable for him, the Queen puts down “a carpet of downy snow.” Meanwhile, Jack Frost decorates the landscape with mirror-like frozen lakes and icicle-laden trees. Delighted children frolic in the snow, which prompts King Winter to ask Jack Frost for a report on who has been good and who hasn’t — the familiar “naughty or nice” list. The good children get toys and Christmas trees (the only mention of Christmas in the book); the bad get birch rods — tied with a pretty red ribbon, though one doubts that would be any comfort to them. King Winter stays until the snowdrops pop up out of the ground, heralding spring.
The pretty color illustrations in King Winter were created with an early color-printing process called chromolithography, which replaced the labor-intensive and expensive hand-coloring process. Chromolithography allowed for fast, cheap mass production of color illustrations with rich, vibrant tones. And, through the magic of HTML, the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders were able to produce the e-book version with a searchable text surrounded by the illustrations, exactly where the text appears in the original book.
Another PG e-book celebrating winter is The Pearl Story Book: Stories and Legends of Winter, Christmas, and New Year’s, an eclectic collection compiled by Ada M. and Eleanor L. Skinner in 1910. A wide range of noted authors are represented — Longfellow, Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Tolstoy, to name just a few — and there are even American Indian, Russian, Japanese, and Norwegian legends.
King Winter makes several appearances in prose and poetry, along with King Frost, the Ice King, and of course good King Wenceslas. The book is divided into sections focused on winter legends, winter woods, Christmas, the New Year, and the passage of winter into spring. Some selections are abridged, but they are all delightful, like this excerpt from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Hot off the Press wishes all its readers a happy and healthy New Year.