Comfort And Joy

Photo by Susan Crossett

Hoping to expand my thoughts, I discovered Bartlett has 29 quotations which include the word “comfort” but not, to my surprise, the one I expected: the comfort and joy we sing about during the holidays,

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Tolkien

Why, I got to asking, do we wish others COMFORT and joy? No one could doubt that it’s a cheerful season — but why comfort which I tend to think of more in terms of being cozy and warm. Webster defines the noun as “strengthening aid, assistance, consolation in time of trouble or worry, solace; a feeling of relief or encouragement, contented well-being, a satisfying or enjoyable experience” or, as a verb, “to give strength and hope to, cheer; to ease the grief or trouble of.”

Random House, being a much larger volume, expands thusly (in part): “to soothe or console, cheer, make physically comfortable, relief in affliction, consolation, solace, a state of ease and satisfaction of bodily wants, with freedom from pain and anxiety. To comfort is to lessen the sadness or sorrow of someone and to strengthen by inspiring with hope and restoring a cheerful outlook.”

Our Constitution calls it treason to give aid and comfort to our enemies.

Obviously then, “comfort” is more than merely a warm fuzzy feeling.

Today we might prefer to wish another “peace” which, while certainly viable is a reflection of the times in which we live. “Now, God be praised, that to believing souls, Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair,” adds Shakespeare.

Wikipedia dates the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” from the 16th century, if not even earlier. Intrigued, I reached for my volume of Will and Ariel Durant to increase my knowledge of that far-away era. Following the Renaissance, this was the time of the first Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare which, I confess, I’d associate more with merrie-ness than a need for comfort.

Boys could get a primary education if within reach of a town though, Durant tells us, this was not a time when many were “addicted to education.” Certainly one exception was the queen who “replied in Greek to a Greek address; on the streets she bandied Latin with her students; finally she herself made a Latin speech expressing the hope that she might do something for learning.” However I read that Henry VIII had dissolved the nunneries which pretty much ended the education of girls. “Most marriages were arranged by the parents after a mutual courtship of properties; then the dizzy goddess of the hour became a disillusioned housekeeper, dedicated to children and chores, and the race survived.”

England was described as “wicked, vainly luxurious, and proud of their sins. . . A worse laxity of morals marked public life. Graft, petty or magnificent, ran through the official services … The courts were by common consent corrupt.”

Shall I continue? “Admirals practiced piracy and sold slaves … Military morals were primitive … witches were burned, and Jesuits were taken down from the scaffold to be cut to pieces alive … Death was the statutory penalty for any of two hundred offenses, including blackmail, cutting down young trees, and stealing more than a shilling (about $2.50); in an average Elizabethan year eight hundred persons were hanged in Merrie England. Minor crimes were punished by the pillory, the stool, burning a hole in the ears or the tongue, cutting out the tongue, or cutting off an ear or a hand.”

Soap, however, became a necessity where it had previously been a luxury. Only the wealthiest had their own domestic supply of water though the flush toilet had by now been invented. Villages and towns saw homes built of brick and plaster with thatched roofs. City dwellings were usually attached to the ones next door. “Floors were covered with rushes and herbs, sweet-smelling when fresh, but soon malodorous and sheltering insects; carpets were 45 years in the future.” Forks too were still in the future. Women spent more on dress than to decorate their homes. “The lower middle classes had vessels of pewter; the poor got along with dishes of wood and spoons of horn. Meat, fish and bread were the staple foods. Dairy products were popular only in the countryside and vegetables were widely used but only by the poor who could grow their own. “Sweets were as favored as now; hence Elizabeth’s black teeth.”

Ale, cider, beer and wine were common, tea and coffee “not yet Anglicized.” Almost everybody danced and all England sang, bringing us back to our carol.

“God rest ye merry, gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay …

And with true love and brotherhood Each other now embrace.”

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her “Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at