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THE MILKT WAT. 559
"draw an important additional conclusion from the gradual dissolution of the Milky-way; for the state into which the incessant action of the clustering power has brought it,
is a kind of chronometer, that may be used to measure the time of its past and present existence; and although we do not know the rate and the going of this mysterious chronometer, it is nevertheless certain that since a breaking up of the part of the Milky-way affords a proof that it cannot last for ever, it equally bears witness that its past duration cannot be admitted to be infinite." Surely the vision of these unfathomable changes—of the solemn march of the majestic heavens from place to place, obediently fulfilling their awful destiny, will not be lost on the heart of the adorer. From the closer view of the Milky-way, it would seem that the process of concentration may be at least one of the grand modes according to which the destiny of its stars is being unrolled; and viewing it thus we are enabled, by certain other facts, to adventure yet farther. If the aggregation of stars in the Milky-way goes on—as it prognosticates—for ages; the clusters now with some intermission forming its ring, will become isolated, and appear in the character of separate systems. But if this may happen in time future, may not something similar have happened in time past? Can it be possible that masses of stars have been torn away from those regions of our galaxy; which thus may indicate by their comparatively small depth, that there, through the action of some irresistible cause, the galaxy has ripened soonest? Singular to relate, it is precisely at these thin sides, that the smaller and nearer external nebulas—globular and elliptical—are most crowded; two-thirds of the entire numbers known to exist, being found in those localities. In the wing of Virgo, a constellation situated near the shallowest part of our galaxy, how crowded it is with groups, most of them, too, round and compressed! In the region opposite Virgo, we have the same wonderful phenomenon; perhaps the only possible relic of that former course of separation, of which the apparent breaking up of the Milky-way in our time may still be the prolongation! Can we indeed say how much of what now appear* may have the same wonderful significance; how far even all these separate firmaments may yet be traced from one homogeneous stratum or mass of stars; so that their existing isolation, their separation and various grouping, may be only the ongoings of the clock—the gigantic steps of the hand by which Time records the days of the years of the existing mechanism of the Universe!
Inaccessible, indeed,—awful and cloud-piercing these stupendous elevations j but down from their unsealed summits there pours a reviving splendour, welcome as a zephyr to the prostrate soul. In the vast heavens, as well as among the phenomena around us, all things are in a state of change and Progress: here too—on the sky— in splendid hieroglyphics the truth is inscribed, that the grandest forms of present being are only germs swelling and bursting with a life to come. And if the universal fabric is thus fixed and constituted, shall ought that it contains be unupheld by the same preserving law; is annihilation a possibility real or virtual—the stoppage of the career of any advancing being, while hospitable Infinitude remains? No! let the night fall; it prepares a dawn when man's weariness shall have ceased, and his soul be refreshed and restored. To Come! To every creature these are words of hope spoken in organ-tone: our hearts suggest them, and the stars repeat them, and through the Infinite, aspiration wings its way, rejoicingly as an eagle following the sun.—Nichols' Architecture of the Heavens.
DIRGE FOR THE YEAR.
Orphan hours; the year is dead,
Come and sigh, come and weep!
As an earthquake rocks a corse
In its coffin in the clay,
Rocks the death-cold year to-day;
As the wild air stirs and sways The tree-swung cradle of a child,
January gray is here,
Like a sexton by her grave;
March with grief doth howl and rave,
Percy Btsshe Shelley.
December was so called by the Romans, as being the tenth month from March, with which their year commenced; while with our Anglo-Saxon forefathers it had the name of Christmonat—because in this month Christ was born — Wintermonaih, or Midwintermonath, and Oiul Erra, meaning the first or former Giul. It was the feast of Thor,
and was celebrated in the Mother-night, that is to say, at the Winter solstice. In Northumberland this month was called Hagmana, a word of which I shall presently have occasion to make mention.
Christmas Ete.—December 2ith. In the primitive church Christmas Day was always observed as a Sabbath, and hence like other Lord's-Days it was preceded by an Eve or Vigil as an occasion of preparing for the day following. No festival of the church was attended by more popular superstitions and observances, the ceremonies of the Saturnalia from which it was derived being improved upon by Christian and Druidical additions. The day of this Vigil was passed in the ordinary manner, but with the evening the sports began; about seven or eight o'clock hot cakes were drawn from the oven; ale, cyder, and spirits went freely round; and the carol-singing commenced, which was continued through the greater part of the night.
The connexion of this festival with the Roman Saturnalia has never been disputed by those competent to form a judgment, and in some existing observances in Franconia the traces of it are undeniable. In the nights of the three Thursdays preceding the Nativity, the young of either sex go about beating at the doors of the houses, singing the near birth of our Saviour, and wishing the inhabitants a happy new year, for which in return they are presented with pears, apples, nuts, and money. With what joy in the churches not only the priests, but the people also, receive the birth-day of Christ may be inferred from this— that the image of a new-born child being placed upon the altar, they dance and chaunt as they circle round it, while the elders sing.
In addition to what has been here advanced, we have the unquestionable authority of Bede for asserting that it had been observed in this country long before by the heathen Saxons. They called it, he says, the Mother-Night, or Night of Mothers, and probably on account of the ceremonies used by them during their Vigil. But in fact though particular portions of this festival may be traced to the Romans or to the ancient Saxons, the root of the whole affair lies much deeper, and is to be sought in far remoter periods. It was
clearly in its origin an astronomical observance, to celebrate the Winter solstice and the consequently approaching prolongation of the days, as is demonstrated by the emblematic Christmas candles and Yule-logs, the symbols of increasing light and heat.
These Christmas candles, though now out of date, were at one time of an immense size, and not a few in number, the houses being very generally illuminated with them. The church too adopted the same custom, but gave especial reasons of its own for such observance ; the apostles, as they explained it, were the light of the world, and as our Saviour also was frequently called the light, so his coming was typified by these emblems. In the buttery of St. John's College, Oxford, there is yet to be seen an "ancient candle-socket of stone, ornamented with the figure of the Holy Lamb. It was formerly used to burn the Christmas candle in, on the high table, during the twelve nights of that festival."
For similar reasons they lighted the Yule-clog, or Yulelog, for the words are synonymous. On these occasions the log was usually as large as the hearth would admit of, or the means of the rejoicers could supply, and in some of the northern counties of England, so long as the log lasted, the servants were entitled to ale at their meals. At one time custom prescribed that it should be lighted with a brand of the last year's block, which had been carefully put by and preserved for that purpose, as we find it pleasantly recorded by Herrick :—:
"Come bring with a noise, My merrie, merrie boys,
With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and
On your psaltries play
That sweet luck may
* Hcrrick's " Hesperides." To Teend is to kindle, or to burn, from the Anglo-Saxon Ttndan, to'set on fire.