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December 28, 1862: San Francisco

December 28, 2012
Union Square 01

Christmastime in Union Square; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

It is one of the most lovely days of the season. The sky is bright, and the air of matchless purity, the mountains fifty or sixty miles distant seem as clear as if but half a dozen miles away. All the city is in excitement over the capture of the California steamer, Ariel, by the British pirate, Alabama, or “290.”

I was at church this morning, an Episcopal church, all decorated with evergreens, and this afternoon it seems as if all the city was in the street.

Justin Herman Skater 01

Ice rink, Justin Herman Plaza; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

The customs of Europe and of the East are transplanted here—churches are decked with evergreens, Christmas trees are the fashion—yet to me, as a botanist, it looks exotic. With us at home, and in Europe, the term “evergreen” seems almost synonymous with “cone-bearing” trees, and so the term is used here. Churches are decked with redwood, which has foliage very like our hemlock—it is called evergreen, but it is hard for the people to remember that nearly all Californian trees are evergreen. While at Christmas time at home the oaks and other trees stretch leafless branches to the wintry winds, here the oaks of the hills are as green as they were in August—the laurel, the madroño, the manzanita, the toyon, are rich in their dense green foliage; roses bloom abundantly in the gardens, the yards are gaudy with geraniums, callas, asters, violets, and other flowers; and there is no snow visible, even on the distant mountains. Christmas here, to me represents a date, a festival, but not a season. It is not the Christmas of my childhood, not the Christmas of Santa Claus with “his tiny reindeer,” the Christmas around which clings some of the richest poetry and prose of the English language. I cannot divest my mind and memory of the association of this season with snowy landscapes, and tinkling sleigh bells, and leafless forests, and more than all, the bright and cheerful winter fireside, the warmth within contrasting with the cold without. So do not wonder if at such times I find a feeling of sadness akin to homesickness creeping over me, that my fireside seems more desolate than ever, and my path in life a lonelier one.

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