——— came old January, wrapped well
In many weeds to keep the cold away;
Yet did he quake and quiver like to quell,
And blowe his nayles to warm them if he may;
For they were numbed with holding all the day
An hatchet keene, with which he felled wood,
And from the trees did lop the needlesse spray;
Upon an huge great Earth-pot Steane he stood,
From whose wide mouth there flowed forth the Romane flood.

JANUARY is the open gate of the year, shut until the shortest day passed, but now open to let in the lengthening daylight, which will soon fall upon dim patches of pale green, that shew where spring is still sleeping. Sometimes between the hoary pillars – when the winter is mild – a few wan snowdrops will peep out and catch the faint sunlight which streams in coldly through the opening gateway, like timid messengers sent to see if spring has yet stirred from her long sleep. But it is yet too early for the hardy crocus to throw its banded gold along the pathway; and as for the ‘rathe primrose,’ it sits huddled up in its little cloak of green, or is seen peeping through its half-closed yellow eye, as if watching the snowflakes as they fall. Only the red-breasted robin – his heart filled with hope – sings his cheerful song on the naked hawthorn spray, through which the tiny buds are striving to break forth, like a herald proclaiming glad tidings, and making known, far and wide, that erelong ‘the winter will be over and gone,’ and the moonlight-coloured May-blossoms once again appear.

All around, as yet, the landscape is barren and dreary. In the early morning, the withered sedge by the water-courses is silvered over with hoary rime; and if you handle the frosted flag-rushes, they seem to cut like swords. Huddled up like balls of feathers, the fieldfares sit in the leafless hedges, as if they had no heart to breakfast off the few hard, black, withered berries which still dangle in the wintry wind. Amid the cold frozen turnips, the hungry sheep look up and bleat pitifully; and if the cry of an early lamb falls on your ear, it makes the heart sorrowful only to listen to it. You pass the village churchyard, and almost shiver to think that the very dead who lie there must be pierced by the cold, for there is not even a crimson hip or haw to give a look of warmth to the stark hedges, through which the bleak wind whistles. Around the frozen pond the cattle assemble, lowing every now and then, as if impatient, and looking backward for the coming of the herdsman to break the ice. Even the nose of cherry-cheeked Patty looks blue, as she issues from the snow-covered cowshed with the smoking milk-pail on her head. There is no sound of the voices of village children in the winding lanes – nothing but the creaking of the old carrier’s cart along the frost-bound road, and you pity the old wife who sits peeping out between the opening of the tilt, on her way to the neighbouring market-town. The very dog walks under the cart in silence, as if to avail himself of the little shelter it affords, instead of frisking and barking beside his master, as he does when ‘the leaves are green and long.’ There is a dull, leaden look about the sky, and you have no wish to climb the hill-top on which those gray clouds hang gloomily. You feel sorry for the poor donkey that stands hanging his head under the guide-post, and wish there were flies about to make him whisk his ears, and not leave him altogether motionless. The ‘Jolly Farmer’ swings on his creaking sign before the road-side alehouse, like the bones of a murderer in his gibbet-irons; and instead of entering the house, you hurry past the closed door, resolved to warm yourself by walking quicker, for you think a glass of ale must be but cold drink on such a morning. The old ostler seems bent double through cold, as he stands with his hands in his pockets, and his pitchfork thrust into the smoking manure-heap that litters the stable-yard.

A walk in the country on a fine frosty morning in January gives the blood a healthy circulation, and sets a man wondering why so many sit ‘croodleing’ over the fire at such a season. The trees, covered with hoar-frost, are beautiful to look upon, and the grass bending beneath its weight seems laden with crystal; while in the distance the hedges seem sheeted with May blossoms, so thickly, that you might fancy there was not room enough for a green leaf to peep out between the bloom. Sometimes a freezing shower comes down, and that is not quite so pleasant to be out in, for in a few moments everything around is covered with ice – the boughs seem as if cased in glass, the plumage of birds is stiffened by it, and they have to give their wings a brisk shaking before they are able to fly; as for a bunch of red holly-berries, could they but retain their icy covering, they would make the prettiest ornaments that could be placed on a mantel-piece. This is the time of year to see the beautiful ramification of the trees, for the branches are no longer hidden by leaves, and all the interlacings and crossings of exquisite network are visible – those pencilling of the sprays which too few of our artists study. Looking nearer at the hedges, we already see the tiny buds forming, mere specks on the stem, that do but little more than raise the bark; yet by the aid of a glass we can uncoil the future leaves which summer weaves in her loom into broad green curtains. The snails are asleep; they have glued up the doorways of their moveable habitations; and you may see a dozen of their houses fastened together if you probe among the dead leaves under the hedges with your walking-stick; while the worms have delved deep down into the earth, beyond the reach of the frost, and thither the mole has followed them, for her has not much choice of food in severe frosty weather. The woodman looks cold, though he wears his thick hedging gloves, for at this season he clears the thick underwood, and weaves into hurdles the smooth hazel-wands, or any long limber twigs that form the low thicket beneath the trees. He knows where the primroses are peeping out, and can tell of little bowery and sheltered hollows, where the wood-violets will erelong appear. The ditcher looks as thoughtful as a man digging his own grave, and takes no heed of the pretty robin that is piping its winter song on the withered gorse bushes with which he has just stopped up a gap in the hedge. Poor fellow, it is hard work for him, for the ground rings like iron when he strikes it with his spade, yet you would rather be the ditcher than the old man you passed a while ago, sitting on a pad of straw and breaking stones by the wayside, looking as if his legs were frozen. That was the golden-crested wren which darted across the road, and though the very smallest of our British birds, it never leaves us, no matter how severe the winter may be, but may be seen among the fir-trees, or pecking about where the holly and ivy are still green. If there is a springhead or water-course unfrozen, there you are pretty sure to meet with the wag-tail – the smallest of all our walking birds, for he marches along like a soldier, instead of jumping, as if tied up in a sack, as most of our birds do when on the ground. Now the blue titmouse may be seen hanging by his claws, with his back downward, hunting for insects in some decaying bough, or peeping about the thatched eaves of the cottages and outhouses, where it will pull out the straw to stir up the insects that lie snug within the thatch. In the hollows of trees, caverns, old buildings, and dark out-of-the-way places, the bats hibernate, holding on by their claws, while asleep, head downwards, one over another, dozens together, there to await the coming of spring, along with the insects which will then come out of their hiding-places.

Snow in the streets is very different from snow in the country, for there it no sooner falls than it begins to make more dirt, and is at once trampled into mud by a thousand passing feet on the pavement, while in the roadway the horses and vehicles work it into ‘slush,’ which only a brisk shower of rain can clear away. In the country snow is really white; there is none of that gray dirty look about it, which is seen in localities that neighbour upon town, but it lies on the fields, as Milton says, like

‘A wintry veil of maiden white.’

The embankments look like stately terraces formed of the purest marble, and the hills in the distance are scarcely distinguishable from the fleecy clouds that crown their summits; while the wild open moors and hedgeless commons look like a sea of foam, whose waves were suddenly frozen into ridgy rest, the buried bushes only shewing like loftier crests. Vehicles pass along the scarcely distinguishable road with a strange, dull, muffled sound, like objects moving before the eye in a dream, so much do we miss the gritty and grinding noise which the wheels make in the dust of summer. What a different aspect the landscape presents when viewed from some neighbouring eminence! But for a few prominent landmarks, we should hardly know it was the same scene that we looked upon in summer; where the hedges then stretched like green walls across the country, we see but whitened barriers; for the only dark object that now catches the eye is the river that goes rolling between its powdered banks. The appearance of the village, too, is altered; the picturesque thatched roofs of the cottages have vanished, and but for the smoke that curls above the scene, you might fancy that all the inhabitants had fled, for neither flocks nor herds are seen or heard bleating and lowing from the fields, and all out-of-door employment has ceased. You hear the ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer, and as you return when the day darkens, will see the light of his forge fall with a crimson glare across the snow-covered road. Even the striking of the church clock falls upon the ear with a deadened sound, and the report of the sportsman’s gun dies away as soon as heard, leaving no prolonged echo behind.

The farmer must attend to his cattle during this ‘dead season,’ for they require feeding early and late; and it is his business to put all the meat he can on their backs, so that they may weigh heavy, and realise a good price in the market. For this purpose, he must be active in cutting swedes and mangel-wurzel. Without this care, the farmer cannot keep pace with his neighbours. He gets rid of his saleable stock as soon as he can; he says, he ‘likes to see fresh faces in his fields.’ It is a pleasant sight to see the well-fed, clean-looking cattle in the straw-yard, or sniffing about the great barn-doors, where the thresher is at work, waiting for the straw he will throw out. It is a marvel that the poultry escape from those great heavy hoofs; as for a game-cock, he will make a dash at the head of an ox, as if he cared not a straw for his horns; and as for sucking pigs, they are farrowed to be killed.

The teams are also now busy taking the farm produce to market, for this is the season when corn, hay, and straw realise a good price; and a wagon piled high with clean white turnips, or laden with greens or carrots, has a pleasant look moving through the wintry landscape, as it conjures up before the hungry pedestrian visions of boiled beef and mutton, which a walk in frosty weather gives a hearty man a good appetite to enjoy. Manure can also be carted better to the fields during a frost than at any other time, for the ground is hard, and the wheels make but little impression on rough fallow lands. Let a thaw come, and few persons, unless they have lived in the country, can know the state the roads are in that lead to some of our out-of-the-way villages in the clayey districts. A foot-passenger, to get on at all, must scramble through some gap in the hedge, and make his way by trespassing on the fields. In the lane, the horses are knee-deep in mire every step they take; and as for the wain, it is nearly buried up to the axels in places where the water has lodged. In vain does the wagoner keep whipping or patting his strong well-fed horses, or clapping his broad shoulder to the miry wheels: all is of no avail; he must either go home for more horses, or bring half-a-dozen men from the farm to dig out his wagon. It’s of no use grumbling, for perhaps his master is one of the surveyors of the highways.

The gorse, furze, whin, or ‘fuzz’ – country people sometimes calling it by the last name – is often in flower all the year round, though the great golden-bellied baskets it hangs out in summer are now nearly closed, and of a pale yellowish green. Although its spikes are as sharp as spears, and there is no cutting out a golden branch without wearing thick gloves, still it is one of the most beautiful of our wayside shrubs, and we hardly wonder at Linnæus falling on his knees in admiration the first time he saw it. Many a time have we cut a branch in January, put it in water, and placed it in a warm room, when in two or three days all its golden lamps have lighted up, and where it stood it seemed to ‘make sunshine in the shady place.’

Many rare birds visit us occasionally in winter, which never make their appearance on our island at any other season. Some are only seen once now and then in the course of several years, and how they find their way hither at all, so far from their natural haunts, is somewhat of a mystery. Many birds come late in the autumn, and take their departure early in spring. Others remain with us all the year round, as the thrush and blackbird, which often commence singing in January. Wrens, larks, and many other small birds never leave our country. Flocks of wild-geese and other water-fowl, also visit our reedy marshes and sheltered lakes in winter; far up the sky their wild cries may be heard in the silence of midnight, as they arrive. Rooks now return from the neighbouring woods, where they have mostly wintered, to their nest-trees; while the smaller birds, which drew near to our habitation during the depth of winter, begin to disappear. Those that require insect food, go and forage among the grass and bushes; others retreat to the sides of stagnant pools, where, during the brief intervals of sunshine, gnats are now found. Others hunt in old walls, or among decayed trees, where insects are hidden in a dormant state, or are snugly ensconced in their warm cocoons, awaiting the first warm touch of spring, when, in the words of Solomon, ‘the flowers appear on the earth… and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’



It is very appropriate that this should be the first month of the year, as far as the northern hemisphere is concerned; since, its beginning being near the winter solstice, the year is thus made to present a complete series of the seasonal changes and operations, including equally the first movements of spring, and the death of all annual vegetation in the frozen arms of winter. Yet the earliest calendars, as the Jewish, the Egyptian, and Greek, did not place the commencement of the year at this point. It was not done till the formation of the Roman calendar, usually attributed to the second king, Numa Pompilius, whose reign is set down as terminating anno 672 B.C. Numa, it is said, having decreed that the year should commence now, added two new months to the ten into which the year had previously been divided, calling the first Januarius, in honour of Janus, the deity supposed to preside over doors (Lat. Janua, a door), who might very naturally be presumed also to have something to do with the opening of the year.

Although, however, there was a general popular regard to the 1st of January as the beginning of the year, the ancient Jewish year, which opened with the 25th of March, continued long to have a legal position in Christian countries. In England, it was not till 1752 that the 1st of January became the initial day of the legal, as it had long been of the popular year. Before that time, it was customary to set down dates between the 1st of January and the 24th of March inclusive, thus: January 30, 1648-9: meaning, that popularly the year was 1649, but legally 1648. In Scotland, this desirable change was made by a decree of James VI. in privy council, in the year 1600. It was effected in France in 1564; in Holland, Protestant Germany, and Russia, in 1700; and in Sweden in 1753. 

According to Verstegan, in his curious book The Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (4to, 1628), our Saxon ancestors originally called this month Wolf-monat – that is, Wolf-month – ‘because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.’ Subsequently, the month was named by the same people Aefter-Yule – that is, After Christmas. It is rather odd that we should have abandoned the Saxon names of the months, while retaining those of the days of the week. 



The deity Janus was represented by the Romans as a man with two faces, one looking backwards, the other forwards, implying that he stood between the old and the new year, with regard to both.

In the quaint drawings which illuminate the Catholic missals in the middle ages, January is represented by ‘the figure of a man clad in white, as the type of the snow usually on the ground at that season, and blowing on his fingers as descriptive of the cold; under his left arm he holds a billet of wood, and near him stands the figure of the sign Aquarius, into which watery emblem in the zodiac the sun enters on the 19th of this month.’ – Brady.

In the middle of the month, the sun at London is only 8h. 20m., at Edinburgh, 7h. 34m., above the horizon. There is a liability to severe and lasting frosts, and to heavy falls of snow. Vegetation lies dead, and it is usually ‘sore times’ for the animal creation; the farmer has his bestial, including the sheep, if he keeps any, much upon his hands for artificial supplies. The birds of the field and wood, reduced to great extremities, come nearer to the residences of men, in the hope of picking up a little food. The robin is especially remarkable for this forced familiarity. In unusually severe seasons, many birds perish of cold and hunger, and consequently, when the spring comes on, there is a marked diminution of that burst of sylvan song which usually makes the season so cheerful.

Amusements prevail during dry frost in Scotland, with one more, as yet little known in the south. It bears the name of Curling, and very much resembles bowls in its general arrangements, only with the specialty of flat stones to slide along the ice, instead of bowls to roll along the grass. Two parties are ranged in contention against each other, each man provided with a pair of handled stones and a broom, and having crampets on his feet to enable him to take a firm hold of the glassy surface. They play against each other, to have as many stones as possible lying near a fixed point, or tee, at the end of the course. When a player happens to impel his stone weakly, his associates sweep before it to favour its advance. A skip, or leader, stands at the tee, broom in hand, to guide the players of his party as to what they should attempt; whether to try to get through a certain open channel amongst the cluster of stones guarding the tee, or perhaps to come smashing among them, in the hope of producing rearrangements more favourable to his side. Incessant vociferation, frequent changes of fortune, the excitation of a healthy physical exercise, and the general feeling of socialty evoked, all contribute to render curling one of the most delightful of amusements. It is further remarkable that, in a small community, the curling rink is usually surrounded by persons of all classes – the laird, the minister, and the provost, being all hail-fellow-well-met on this occasion with the tailors, shoemakers, and weavers, who at other times never meet them without a reverent vailing of the beaver. Very often a plain dinner of boiled beef with greens concludes the merry-meeting. There is a Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland, embracing the highest names in the land, and having scores of provincial societies affiliated to it. They possess an artificial pond in Strathallan, near the line of the Scottish Central Railway, and thither sometimes converge for one day’s contention representatives from clubs scattered over fully a hundred and fifty miles of country.


When the low temperature of January is attended with a heavy snow-fall, as it often is, the ground receives a certain degree of protection, and is so far benefited for tillage in spring. But a load of snow is also productive of many serious inconveniences and dangers, and to none more than to the farmer, especially if he be at all concerned in store farming. In Scotland, once every few years, there is a snow-fall of considerable depth, threatening entire destruction to sheep-stock. On one such occasion, in 1795, the snow was drifted in some hollows of the hills to the depth of a hundred feet. In 1772, there was a similar fall. At such times, the shepherd is exposed to frightful hardships and dangers, in trying to rescue some part of his charge. James Hogg tells us that, in the first-mentioned of these storms, seventeen shepherds perished in the southern district of Scotland, besides about thirty who, carried home insensible, were with difficulty recovered. At the same time, many farmers lost hundreds of their sheep.



For the uninstructed mind, the fall of snow is a very common-place affair. To the thoughtless schoolboy, making up a handful of it into a missile, wherewith to surprise his friend passing on the other side of the way; to the labouring man plodding his way through it with pain and difficulty; to the agriculturist, who hails it as a comfortable wrappage for the ground during a portion of the dead season of the year, it is but a white cold substance, and nothing more. Even the eye of weather-wisdom could but distinguish that snow sometimes fell in broad flakes, and sometimes was of a powdery consistence; peculiarities from which certain inferences were drawn as to the severity and probable length of the storm. In the view of modern science, under favour of the microscope, snow is one of the most beautiful things in the museum of nature; each particle, when duly magnified, shewing a surprising regularity of figure, but various according to the degree of frost by which the snow has been produced. In the Book of Job, ‘the treasures of the snow’ are spoken of; and after one has seen the particles in this way, he is fully disposed to allow the justice of the expression.

The indefatigable Arctic voyager, Scoresby, was the first to observe the forms of snow particles, and for a time it was supposed that they assumed these remarkable figures in the polar regions alone. It was, however, ascertained by Mr James Glaisher, secretary of the British Meteorological Society, that, in the cold weather which marked the beginning of 1855, the same and even more complicated figures were presented in England.

In consistence, a snow particle is laminar, or flaky, and it is when we look at it in its breadth that the figure appears. With certain exceptions, which probably will be in time explained away, the figure is stellar – a star of six arms or points, forming of course angles of 60 degrees. And sometimes the figure is composed merely of six spiculæ meeting at a point in this regular way. It more frequently happens, however, that the spicular arms of the figure are feathered with other and smaller spiculæ, all meeting their respective stems at an angle of 60- degrees, or loaded with hexagonal prisms, all of which have of course the same angles. It is in obedience to a law governing the crystallisation of water, that this angle of 60 degrees everywhere prevails in the figures of snow particles, with the slight and probably only apparent exceptions which have been alluded to. But while there is thus a unity in the presiding law, the results are of infinite variety, probably no two particles being ever precisely alike. It is to be observed that there is a tendency to one style of figure at any particular time of a snowfall, in obedience to the degree of the temperature or some other condition of the atmosphere; yet within the range of this style, or general character, the minute differences may be described as endless. A very complicated form will even go through a series of minor changes as it melts on the object-glass of the observer; passing from the more complicated to the less, till it ends, perhaps, as a simple star of six points, just before becoming water.


The engraving above represents a selection of figures from ninety-six given by Dr. Scoresby in his work on the Arctic Regions.1 It includes, as will be observed, certain triangular and other figures of apparently exceptional character. In a brochure issued by Mr Glaisher, and quoted below,2 a hundred and fifty-one figures are presented, many of them paragons of geometrical beauty, and all calculated further to illustrate this interesting subject.3


Kalendar for January 1794, Edinburgh Almanack.


1  Published in 1820, 2 vols., 8vo.
2  Report of Council of Brit. Meteor. Society, May 1855.
3  It has been found by Mr J. Spencer, and confirmed by observations of Mr Glaisher, that a weak solution of camphor produces, when rapidly dried, crystals resembling those of snow, of the more elementary forms.