The night is freezing fast.
Tomorrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past.” (-A. E. Housman, 1859-1936)
This name of the last month of our calendar year actually gets its name from the Latin word “decem” which means tenth. Like November, October, and September, the three preceding months, December is misnamed for the Latin words meaning numbers tenth, ninth, eighth and seventh, because these months held these positions in the Roman calendar until the two months of January and February were added in the seventh century B.C. under Roman Emperor Numa Pompilius. Emperor Julius Ceasar revised the Roman calendar again in 46 B.C. His calendar had 365 and 1/4 days and was known as the Julian Calendar until Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 ordered the system we know now as “leap year” with an extra day coming every four years in the second month, February. We live and work, therefore, according to the Gregorian calender, and rarely do we consider the old meaning of the word “December” as deriving from the Latin word meaning tenth.
One of my favorite columns in the daily newspaper to which I subscribe is “Today in History.” If your newspaper carries this syndicated column, perhaps you, as I, delight in seeing the list of important events and births that happened in December. As Poet Housman wrote,
“And winterfalls of old/Are with me from the past.”With December dawning the day this issue of Sentinel is published, let’s look at a few significant dates in Decembers past.
Fifty years ago, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her stance has been noted as one of the significant events of the Civil Rights Movement that spurred bus boycotts, marches and voting privileges for her race. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. She died October 24, 2005. Born Rosa Louise McCauley, she lived in fear as a child, heard the Klu Klux Klan ride and demonstrate in her neighborhood in Pine Level, Alabama, saw them burn houses and perform lynchings. She was the first woman in America who was chosen for the honor of lying in state in the rotunda of the nation’s capitol at her death, an honor usually reserved for presidents.
Three United States Presidents thus far had December birthdays. Martin Van Buren was born December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, N.Y. The eighth president of our country, he was the first chief executive to be born an American citizen after the United States became an independent nation. His term of service was from March 4, 1837 through March 3, 1841. Van Buren died in his hometown of Kinderhook on July 24, 1862.
The seventeenth president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was born December 29, 1808 in Raleigh, N.C. He had a rugged childhood. His father, a handyman at a tavern, died when Andrew was 3. His mother had to take in washing to care for her children. Andrew did not go to school as a child, and was apprenticed early to a tailor where he learned the trade and also how to read. At age 16 he left Raleigh and went to Greenville, Tenn., and set up his own tailor’s shop. At 18, he married 16-year-old Eliza McCardle. She was much better educated than Andrew, and taught him how to write and to read better. He began to walk to a school that would let him participate in student debates. His quick mind, booming voice, and familiarity with current events on which the teams debated made him a champion debater and prepared him for his career in politics. He was first on the town council, then mayor, next congressman, at age 45 became governor of Tennessee, following which he was elected for two terms to the U.S. Senate. Johnson remained in Congress at the outbreak of the Civil War, and in 1864, he was nominated from the “Union” Party as Vice-President for Abraham Lincoln’s second term. No one foresaw Johnson becoming president, but when President Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president, serving from April 15, 1865 through March 3, 1869. Civil unrest and the strong impetus on punishing the rebelling south made Johnson’s term one of trials and troubles. In fact, Congress tried to impeach him, but by one vote Johnson remained as president. The seventeenth president, with the nickname “Tennessee Tailor,” died July 31, 1875 in Carter Station, Tenn.
The next president with a December birthday was Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president, born December 29, 1856 in Staunton, Va. Son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, at one time his father’s church in Augusta, Ga., was turned into a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. Educated at Davidson College, the College of New Jersey and later at Princeton, he received a degree in law and for a short time practiced law in Atlanta, Ga. He received a Doctor of Philosophy degree from John Hopkins University and began to teach. He became president of Princeton University in 1902. In 1910 he was elected governor of New Jersey and in 1912 was elected president of the United States. His term of service was from March 4, 1913 through March 3, 1921. When he was reelected to a second term in 1916, his slogan had been: “Wilson kept us out of war.” But when German warships began to sink American ships in the Atlantic, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Following the Armistice in 1918, Wilson worked hard on his famous “Fourteen Points” peace plan and for the establishment of the League of Nations. However, because the U.S. Senate would never vote to join the League of Nations, Wilson’s dream of America becoming a leading member was not realized. He was married first to Ellen Axxon of Rome, Ga., who died during his first term in 1914. They had three daughters. He married Edith Bolling Galt in December 1915. When Wilson suffered a massive stroke on October 2, 1919, his wife Edith read government reports, shielded him from visitors and relayed his decisions. He finished out his second term as an invalid and died quietly in Washington in 1924.
Rosa Parks, Civil Rights proponent, and three U.S. Presidents had December birthdays, as well as a host of other notable people. But the month reminds us more of the birthday of Emmanuel, God with us, which we celebrate on December 25, although the exact date of His birth has been lost in the mists of time. The fight is on to call the season only “Happy Holidays” and omit any mention of Christmas, which means “birthday of Christ.” My hope is that we all remember the “reason for the season,” and as December comes we will prepare hearts to celebrate the best birthday of all time.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 1, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.