Were you to visit Presque Isle — a small peninsula on the Erie, Pennsylvania lakefront — during any mid-nineteenth-century autumn, you’d likely see marshes thick with cranberry bushes. The largest marsh of all occupied the peninsula’s middle. September’s arrival would see the berries at their reddest, a development that summoned the folks of Erie County to their harvest.
The picked cranberries would go into jellies and preserves or into stalls at public markets. And in doing so they precipitated a tragedy of the commons: greedier sorts would steal a march on their unsuspecting fellows, leaving them to find the marshes of Presque Isle bare of fruit. The phenomenon became so acute that in 1841 the state legislature of Pennsylvania intervened. It deemed such deviousness to be “contrary to the peace and dignity of the commonwealth.” To this end, it forbade the picking of cranberries on Presque Isle from “the first of July” to “the first Tuesday of October.”
The mariners stranded in the icy wastes of Antarctica, where, as an 1850 edition of Household Words reports, “crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships”; the mariners icily bearded, enjoying no company besides animals and birds white as though “they too were born of the desolate snow and frost” – how did they observe the year-end holidays? With merriment and good cheer, as it turns out.
The 1841 South Pole expedition was the very picture of high spirits on the high seas. The crew celebrated Christmas in grand English style, unfriendly environs notwithstanding. Such animal life as existed there paid no heed to them. Seals basked sleepily on floating chunks of ice. The black curve of a whale’s back peeked through a fissure and disappeared again. Two ships, the “Terror” and the “Erebus,” occupied a small opening in ice pack seven hundred miles wide. Ice covered the decks; a dense, gray fog, the ships. Except for flocks of shrieking terns that sometimes passed by, all was still and silent.
Guests lounge in armchairs and on the sofa, refusing to stir, perhaps even refusing to speak. If they do speak, their conversations are punctuated by hiccups, burps and farts so frequent as to constitute a fugue of digestive functions. They are all equally afflicted in this manner, regardless of age or species: children bulge with ill-advised fourth helpings of pie; the family spaniel, heavy with table scraps, wobbles to her favorite corner.