Dec. 17, Monday — Saturnalia feast celebrated, Dec. 17-23; light candles and bonfires. Halcyon days.

Dec. 18, Tuesday — Conjunction of Neptune and the moon. Begin diet to gain weight, today and tomorrow.

Dec. 19, Wednesday — Ember Day. Conjunction of Uranus and the moon. Propitious to castrate animals today.

Dec. 20, Thursday — Conjunction of Mars and the moon. Cut hair to encourage growth, today and tomorrow.

Dec. 21, Friday — Ember Day. St. Thomas, patron of architects and masons. Winter solstice.

Dec. 22, Saturday — Ember Day. When the grouse drum at night, there will be a fall of snow.

Dec. 23, Sunday — Moon on the equator. Fourth Sunday in Advent. Beware the pogonip, an icy fog.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Is it possible to have a pogonip and halcyon days at the same time? — D.T., Manchester, Ind.

Answer: No. Since the two describe very different weather conditions, it would not be literally possible to have both in the same place at the same time. The pogonip, as you probably know, is a period of icy or frozen fog. Native Americans believed that the needle-sharp frozen air, occurring in the mountain valleys of the western United States, might be injurious to the lungs or to anyone with a cold or pneumonia.

Halcyon days, on the other hand, are a period of about 14 days, more or less a week to either side of the winter solstice (Dec. 21, this year). They are thought to bring calm, tranquil weather after a blustery period of wind and storms. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew it as the time when the halcyon or kingfisher was brooding. In a nest floating on the sea, the bird was believed to have charmed the wind and waves so that the weather was calm enough not to disturb their nests. The origins of the story come from the Greek goddess Halcyone, who ruled the winds. She was married to King Ceyx, who drowned in a shipwreck. The gods transformed Ceyx and his wife to kingfishers, promising that in the seven days preceding the solstice, when the birds were building their nests (lined with fish bones), and in the seven days following, when the hatching commenced, the seas would be calm. Halcyon days symbolize peace and tranquillity.

Besides the two weather terms being near opposites in meaning, they also refer primarily to different geological locations. The pogonip occurs in interior portions of the United States, near the mountains. The halcyon days occur along the coastal areas, where the offshore winds and seas are at issue.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: I love to give food gifts for the holidays, but I worry that others might think me a cheapskate. Is there a rule of thumb? — R.J., Braintree, Mass.

Answer: In these days of rush, rush, rush, anyone who takes the time to bake cookies, can pickles or soak the Christmas puddings has our vote for most thoughtful gift. "Give of yourself," as the old saying goes, and that's as close to a rule of thumb as you're apt to get. If your skills are in the kitchen, so be it. If money is really of no issue, and you're determined to add something more to the gift, you can always find a holiday-patterned cloth napkin to cover the plate of cookies, or search the antique shops for a pretty single spoon to go with some jams. Pretty glass jars, candy dishes or old-fashioned tins can offer a step up from the disposable plate or simple cellophane. Baskets are often inexpensive. They add a little charm to a loaf of home-baked bread. Fancy wire-edged ribbons offer an extra touch, as well, and can even hold an inexpensive ornament, as a bonus gift. A pair of candles, sprig of fresh herbs, or your favorite recipe on a card offers value-added gifts.

Mostly, though, we encourage you to resist the temptation to inflate your simple gifts. "Many a little makes a mickle," as the old-timers said, also phrased as "Many a mickle makes a muckle." If you don't know what that means, you're not alone! The gist, however, is that many small things make a great one, or "Every little bit helps." Small gifts are often gifts of the heart, so do not underestimate them. One old proverb says it nicely: "The greatest calf is not the sweetest veal."

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: My husband has rented a tuxedo for a holiday event, but I'm afraid his dandruff will be noticeable. Any tactful suggestions? — F.O., Princeton, N.J.

Answer: The supermarket shampoos for this purpose, while possibly effective, are not what you'd call tactful. How about mixing up your own concoction and offering it under the guise of a man's shampoo, with a special fragrance you both might enjoy? Or offer to perform the shampooing yourself, so that he gets a relaxing treat. You get the chance to really scrub and stimulate his scalp to better health. Most dandruff is simply dry, flaking skin that hasn't been discarded. Any number of essential oils, the extracts of various plants, will treat this dryness, so choose the ones you think he'd like. As an example, take 2 or 3 tablespoons of basic Castile liquid soap and add about 10 drops each of the oils of rosemary, sage, and thyme. These fragrances are not flowery, in scent, and they'll help clean and condition his scalp. Shampoo and rinse, as usual. For the night of the big event, and after the shampoo, mix up a vinegar rinse to massage into his scalp. Mix one tablespoon of cider vinegar with 5 drops each of thyme oil, sage oil and eucalyptus oil. Add an equal measure of water (a little more than 1 tablespoon) and mix. Pour a little on your hands, and massage the scalp (not the hair, particularly), then comb as usual. No more snowflakes!


Send your questions to: Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Main St., Dublin, NH 03444; Web site: www.almanac.com