Not everyone gets to spend Christmas Day sitting around a cozy fire with family and friends. On this holiday, why not invite your students to think about all the hard working people who might like to be at home and warm, but who are instead out keeping our world running — police officers, fire fighters, snow plow drivers, and many others, including sailors at sea.
Herman Melville reminds us in Moby-Dick (1851) that somewhere in the world, even on Christmas Day, ships are leaving port and heading out onto the freezing ocean:
At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.
Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard, —
Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.
Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. They were full of hope and fruition. Spite of this frigid winter night in the boisterous Atlantic, spite of my wet feet and wetter jacket, there was yet, it then seemed to me, many a pleasant haven in store; and meads and glades so eternally vernal, that the grass shot up by the spring, untrodden, unwilted, remains at midsummer.
Can you hear Captain Bildad’s “steady notes” through the howling wind? Most of Melville’s contemporaries in the mid-1800s probably could as they read along: Bildad was singing the great “shape note” tune “Jordan” by the early American composer William Billings (1746–1800), who we learned about just the other day. “Jordan” was written to accompany the verses of the prolific hymn-writer and educator Isaac Watts (1674–1748) — this is what it sounds like and would have sounded like on that cold Christmas Day in the North Atlantic:
Melville’s fictional account is full of foreshadowing that hints at the ultimate fate of the novel’s characters. But today we can read it as a straightforward reminder that even on Christmas, there are people out working in the ice and snow.
So here’s a little homeschool lesson for today, to furnish your students’ minds with a nugget of knowledge to reflect upon: “You know in Herman Melville’s famous sailing adventure Moby-Dick — a story you’ll read some day — the ship sets sail on a Christmas afternoon. Even today, on Christmas, somewhere in the world there are sailors going to sea.”
What holiday traditions are you observing in your homeschool this week? 😊
❡ Looking in the lexicon: Today’s little extract has some good intermediate vocabulary that your students can look up in your family dictionary: bulwarks, lank, cordage, fruition, boisterous, meads, vernal — wonderful words, every one. And what about “So to the Jews old Canaan stood, / While Jordan rolled between”? That’s from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible — your dictionary will identify those proper names as well, and your atlas will help you locate the storied Jordan River in the Middle East. 📖
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