Dec. 10, Monday — First day of Chanukah. First recorded sighting of aurora borealis in New England, 1719.

Dec. 11, Tuesday — Laughing gas (nitrous oxide) first used in dentistry, Hartford, Conn., 1844.

Dec. 12, Wednesday — A winter's fog will freeze a dog. Start paperwhites now, for New Year's blooms.

Dec. 13, Thursday — St. Lucy, Italian patroness of virgins and blindness. When soot falls down the chimney, rain is near.

Dec. 14, Friday — New moon. Annular eclipse of the sun. (Only the partial phase will be visible in United States or Canada.)

Dec. 15, Saturday — Halcyon Days, in Greek lore, was a period of peace and tranquility.

Dec. 16, Sunday — Third Sunday in Advent. Moon runs low. Small gifts make friends, great ones make enemies.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: What is Epsom salt? — V.K., Whittier, Calif.

Answer: Named for Epsom, England (a town in Surrey in the southeastern part of that country), where this pure mineral was first found in the 16th century, Epsom salt has been used therapeutically for centuries. Magnesium sulfate is the chemical name. Gardeners, especially, know the advantages of Epsom salt, both for easing muscle pains, soaking swollen ankles or drawing out toxins associated with certain pest plants such as poison ivy. It is also an additive to the water for houseplants or landscaped shrubs. Epsom salt is reputed to encourage the development of a plant's root system and also aid in the absorption of chlorophyll.

Bath salts are generally a large part of Epsom salt, if not entirely that, but often in a colored form. Used as a purgative (for evacuation of the bowels), the bitter tasting Epsom salt was recommended in many old remedies intended to reduce swelling. This use has largely gone out of favor today. Epsom salt is still an FDA-approved laxative, but consult your health practitioner before ingesting this or any home remedies. As a bath soak for aches and pains or for a foot soak for swollen feet and ankles, however, Epsom salt is still used frequently, perhaps, in part, because the substance is so economical. Spas and beauty consultants recommend Epsom salt as an exfoliator, to remove flakes of dead skin. However, soaking in an Epsom salt bath is not recommended if you have high blood pressure or a heart or kidney condition.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Can you suggest some gifts for gardeners? — A.F., Columbus, Ohio

Answer: If you have dried herbs from your gardens, the gift ideas are almost endless. Small, labeled packages of your own herbs or herb combinations make a beautifully personal and fragrant gift. Tea-lovers might appreciate homemade tea bags, if you have lots of mint. The make-it-yourself bags are available through many gardening stores or catalogues. Homemade pesto will be welcomed by basil-lovers. Or herbs can be prettily packed in herb vinegars or oils, using interestingly shaped glass bottles and cork stoppers. Perhaps you have saved some heirloom seeds that you'd like to share.

If herbs are not your thing, consider making your own sachets with rose petals, dried lavender, orrisroot or other combinations. Your local library probably has books on the subject and, even if you have not stored dried herbs and flowers from your own garden, you may be able to purchase these ingredients from garden supply centers or plant nurseries. Are you proud of your particular collection of houseplants? Cuttings from unusual geraniums (try the lemon-scented ones!) or other plants could be rooted, planted and given away, in order to share your indoor bounty.

On a purely practical level, gardeners always need cloth or leather gloves, muscle balms and small tools such as clipping shears or trowels, or kink-free garden hoses. Flower vases, terra cotta pots in Italian designs or interesting shapes, or low vases for forced bulbs are always welcome. Garden towers, trellis work, tomato stakes or other structural supports might come in handy, especially for a gardener with a limited planting bed. Consider kitchen tools, as well. Perhaps a mortar and pestle for processing herbs, an apple peeler for the orchard owner or a garlic press would come in handy. When in doubt, consider a gift certificate to a favorite seed catalogue.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Was there a real do-gooder named Pollyanna? — L.K., Tarrytown, N.Y.

Answer: No. There was a real fictional character, however, created by American author Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868-1920). Her children's stories featured Pollyanna, a girl who was renowned for her expertise in the "glad game," a propensity for finding the silver lining in every cloud or the bright side of every picture, however dark. The word has come to mean someone who is not just optimistic, however, but blindly cheerful or (some would say) even delusional.

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

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