Every family has its peculiar Christmas traditions. My family’s holiday traditions are strongly influenced by a linguistic dispute back in A.D. 1054, one consequence of which is that we celebrate Christmas on January 7th, 13 days after almost everyone else we know does so. This has its virtues and its vices. One of the vices is that we clean up on holiday shopping, since we are afforded an extra 13 days to pick up last minute presents, which gets us well into the time zone of post-holiday sales. Another is that we always wait until a period somewhere between December 23rd and December 26th to buy our Christmas tree. We typically are able to pick up our trees for a song, and last year were even able to get a tall frosty spruce without even singing.
This history of vice has finally caught up with us, for this year, as we stalked forlornly through the suburbs of Atlanta, no Christmas trees were to be found. Lacking foresight or preparation, we have found ourselves in the midst of a cut-tree shortage. And what is a belated Christmas without a cut-tree shedding in the living room?
We are now in the position of pondering the unthinkable. Should we purchase an artificial tree this year (currently fifty-percent off at Target)? The thought fills us with a certain degree of inexplicable horror. Perhaps this is owing to an uncanny wariness about the prospects of surrendering to technology, in some way. While not tree-huggers, as such, we have a fondness for natural beauty, and there are few things so beautiful as a tree pruned over a year to produce the correct aesthetic form, then cut down, transported, and eventually deposited in one’s living room where it is affectionately adorned with trinkets and lighting.
Another potential source for the uneasiness my wife and I are experiencing is an association of these ersatz arboreals with memories of our childhoods in the late 70’s and early 80’s, which are festooned with cigarette smoke, various kinds of loaf for dinner, checkered suits, polyester shirts and, of course, artificial trees. Is this the kind of life we want for our own children?
In the end, we have opted to get a three-foot, bright pink, pre-lit artificial tree. Our thinking is that this tree will not offend so greatly if it knows its place and does not put forward pretensions of being real.
The linguistic ambiguity alluded to above has led to other traditions. For instance, in Appalachia there are still people who cleave to the custom that on the midnight before January 6th, animals participate in a miracle in which they all hold concourse. Briefly granted the opportunity to speak, all creatures great and small can be heard praying quietly and, one would imagine, discussing the events of the past year. The significance of January 6th comes from the fact that the Church of England was late to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which changed the way leap years are calculated, and consequently so was America late. Thus at the time that the Appalachian Mountains were first settled by English emigrants, the discrepancy between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar was about 12 days (the gap, as mentioned above, has grown to 13 days in recent years). The mystery of the talking animals revolves around a holiday that was once celebrated on January 6th , but is celebrated no more — that is, Christmas.
According to this site, there is a similar tradition in Italy, itself. On the day of the Epiphany, which commemorates the day the three magi brought gifts to the baby Jesus, the animals speak.
Italians believe that animals can talk on the night of Epiphany so owners feed them well. Fountains and rivers in Calabria run with olive oil and wine and everything turns briefly into something to eat: the walls into ricotta, the bedposts into sausages, and the sheets into lasagna.
The Epiphany is celebrated in Rome on January 6th of the Gregorian calendar. It is possible, however, that even in Italy, older traditions have persisted under a different guise, and that the traditions of Old Christmas (as it is called in Appalachia) have simply refused to migrate 12 days back into December, and are now celebrated under a new name. Such is the way that linguistic ambiguities give rise to ambiguities in custom, and ambiguities in custom give rise to anxiety over what to display in one’s living room, and when.