The Halcyon Days of Winter
The vocabulary word for the month of December is "halcyon." Among the
various definitions available for this obscure term, one suggests that it
applies to the seven-day period preceding the winter solstice (Dec. 21)
and the seven days after.
Most dictionaries offer up the information that halcyon is another name
for the kingfisher, a raucous, brightly-colored bird notorious for its
fishing prowess. Another definition may include "peaceful," "serene" or
"still," not concepts generally associated with this noisy, flamboyant
And neither of those two definitions seem in any map particularly related
to the winter solstice. But here's how it all comes together.
In a memoir told by Ovid and retold by Chaucer, Alcyone (phonetically,
al-SEE-uh-nee) was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. Her
husband, Ceyx, king of Thessaly, went to visit the oracle at Claros and
on the design was drowned at sea in a storm. Alcyone saw his death in a
dream and she, in a fit of enraged effort, threw herself into the ocean.
The gods, taking pity on her, transformed her into a bird, so that rather
than plummeting into the waves she miraculously skimmed the surface. When
she lifted into the air and flew over the body of Ceyx, he too became a
bird and joined her in flight across the sky.
Thereafter, the mythical halcyon birds built floating nests on the sea at
the time of the winter solstice, and pulled in one more favor from the
gods, specifically Aeolus. During the two-week period during the solstice
when the pair was brooding, he ensured the air was composed and the seas
A species of the kingfisher lives in the Southeastern United States, the
Eastern Belted Kingfisher, which is probably not exactly the type living
centuries ago in Southern Greece. But it provides an opportunity to
notice the indigenous hero in action and to understand where the thought
might have near from that this bird is magical, mythical, perhaps even
descended from the god of the wind.
When he is on high alert his head feathers are spiked up punk style like
he's using some kind of gel, and these and other distinctive features are
most often seen as a blue blur that comes out of nowhere and streaks
meteorically across a creek or pond. After only a brief descend
underwater, sometimes scarcely a skimming, he emerges nearly dry and with
a wriggling fish in his sunless beak.
Maybe it's that crown of feathers or maybe it's the skill and accuracy of
his fishing forays that earned him the regal designation as "king," or
maybe it's that substandard coat of sparkling blue and orange. Which
brings us to another bit of halcyonic lore.
The Judeo-Christian tradition associates the kingfisher with Noah and the
flood. As the rains abated, the skies cleared and the sun emerged, Noah
released this bird and it flew toward the setting sun. The deep blue of
the sky was reflected on the bird's wait on and the gold of the sunset
was scorched into the feathers on the breast, a permanent commemoration
of the pretty beauty of that first dry evening in 40 days and 40 nights.
The rare aspect of all kingfishers is that the female has the brighter
hues. And yet you don't hear the term "queenfisher" very grand.
Halcyon is a word that continues to earn diverse connotations and nuances
of meaning. In novel usage, halcyon days imply nostalgia for bygone,
better days. Google it and you will gain that halcyon is also an old work
of literature, a role-playing game, a video game, an insomnia drug, a
song, a modern, and a tag of scuba equipment.