My twin sister Holly, a character who belongs to some long-ago time, shows an extremist compassion for pillaging rodents. She doesn't understand my harsh feelings toward the squirrels that daily raid my front-porch bird feeder. She'll even say maddening things like, "They need to eat too. And look how clever they are, jumping that high."
The other day, Holly witnessed one of my nemeses pausing at the window for a remarkable long minute. She saw him balanced upright on the back of the outdoor rocking chair; he had placed one tiny paw upon his chest, right where his mysterious squirrel's heart must be, blinking reproachfully inside as if to declare, "Don't hate me because I'm hungry."
I wouldn't have believed her. Except that I was there too, and I saw it.
Now, I don't know whether the current pope would sanction a grandstanding squirrel as a Christmas miracle, but it sure was eerie, and it put me in mind of the ancient country legend about livestock genuflecting on Christmas Eve, in revelatory echo of the manger scene.
The blog "Gary's World Appalachia: Views from a Hillbilly" includes a passage about traditional regional beliefs. It begins: "In the Appalachian Mountains, the celebration of Old Christmas [aka the Epiphany on Jan. 6] remained until about World War I." The exchanging of presents happened on Dec. 25, or "new Christmas." According to Gary, "January 6 was primarily a family observance. The fare for the evening meal was simple and the celebration included singing carols and reading the Christmas story from the Bible. … It was believed that on Old Christmas, water was turned to wine and animals bowed to pray."
Another native mountaineer, local pagan activist Byron Ballard, expresses familiarity with this custom — and also skepticism. "I grew up unchurched, but my family still had a lot of cultural stuff around Christmas," she says. "We were always told that if we went up to the barn on Christmas Eve at midnight, the animals would be kneeling, as if in prayer. I did one year, and all the animals — two ponies and a horse — were asleep. The pony was snoring."
Nevertheless, the animals did receive festive yule treats. "We gave the ponies sour mash on Christmas morning," recalls Ballard. And sometimes, she reveals, the lucky beasts even "got some beer."
My sister-in-law Meg Larson runs a horse-boarding establishment in the Tennessee foothills and probably couldn't get away with serving ale to her four-legged charges. But the residents of Valley View Stables are not forgotten during the December holidays: "The barn cats will get a can of cat food on Christmas morning, and the horses will get carrots and apples with their morning feed," says Larson. "We tried putting a small Christmas tree in the barn, but after one of the horses tried to eat it and ended up spooking herself with the tree in her mouth, resulting in a spray of ornaments all over the aisle, we decided that wasn't our best idea.
"Now we hang wreaths on the driveway gates," she says, "and leave it at that."
City-dwellers can honor backyard visitors, especially birds, with munchies that double as family craft projects. "We used to fill pine cones with peanut butter and seeds and hang them on trees [as] decoration," says Asheville singer Kelly Barrow, the mother of two teenagers.
Sherri McLendon of Woodfin makes the same kind of ornaments with her 3-year-old son, waiting until January so she can reuse her Christmas tree, which is moved outside for this purpose. Once the cones are hung, "we stand in the middle of the backyard and enjoy the show," says McLendon. Later, she says, the tree is further recycled into wood chips or cover for woodland animals.
Over at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, animals traditionally associated with Christmas make appearances this time of year. These special guests have included reindeer and, more recently, two varieties of camels. A fir tree on the site is garlanded with popcorn and Cheerios, and Nature Center Education Specialist Dan Clere also recommends suet cakes for bird enthusiasts, explaining, "they will continue to be munched on by woodpeckers and stay good longer, as it's cold and they don't go rancid like they do in the summer."
He warns against putting out holiday treats for wild mammals, though. "You'll inevitably draw potentially dangerous nuisance animals such as bears and raccoons," says Clere. And bears aren't the reverent type, anyway. They'd rather nap than kneel.
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.
I don't know whether the current pope would sanction a grandstanding squirrel as a Christmas miracle, but it sure was eerie.]