Carol of the Animals
Rebecca Sicree on the Burdens & Blessings of Beasts at Christmas
We should get a ferret for Christmas," my son Alec announced. I was surprised: while his younger siblings had begged for a pet, any pet, for years, Alec had seemed uninterested.
"Why do you want a ferret?" I asked.
"So we can hang our Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling," he replied. Now upside-down Christmas trees are not unknown: some medieval Germans nailed them to the rafters, just as some modern stores mount them on poles, presumably to save floor space. Alec had learned that some ferret owners use upside-down trees as well, suspending them like chandeliers, so that their rambunctious pets—which can climb but not jump—do not drink the tree water, tunnel under the tree skirt, race through the branches, tip the tree over, or eat the ornaments.
The Friendly Beasts
I was saved from both ferrets and ferret-proof Christmas trees by our landlord, who had considerately banned all pets. But I began to realize just how much animals influence how we celebrate Christmas, even for those of us who are not ferret owners. At our parish school, for example, the third-grade Christmas pageant is not complete until a succession of children wearing floppy ears crawls onstage as the class sings "The Friendly Beasts." The child in the grey sweat suit gently brays to tell you that she is the donkey; the one draped with the brown blanket sweetly hisses to tell you that he is the camel. Under his blanket is strapped a pillow, lest you mistake the friendly camel for a friendly snake.
Hissing is not the only noise camels make. It is not even their most typical noise. Camels can sound like everything from a stuttering motor to a train whistle to a cross between an elephant and a horse: they are, after all, very large animals. Fortunately for elementary teachers everywhere, most third-grade boys have no idea how unmusical camels are (nor how much they spit). Hissing is probably the only sound they make that wouldn't immediately change a reverent pageant into a slapstick comedy.
Enthroned Above the Caribou
For real comedy, however, you need reindeer. One of the high points of our school's Christmas concert, which is a bit rowdier than its Christmas pageant, is the singing of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," mostly because a lucky few of the singers get to wear light-up clown noses for the song. Even without glowing noses, flying reindeer are so outlandish that we forget that little children take them seriously. We forget that to children the whole world is outlandish and mysterious. So when my daughter Teresa, who at seven had, theoretically, reached the age of reason, asked if reindeer really flew, I shouldn't have been surprised.
"No," her older brother Tom informed her. "Because if they did, you would see Eskimos flying around everywhere, and you don't."
I was heartened by nine-year-old Tom's unexpectedly logical answer, but my relief was short-lived. I soon found that he didn't so much believe that flying reindeer were impossible as that the Eskimos just didn't have any.
Rebecca Sicree writes from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. She and her family attend Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in nearby State College. She and her husband Andrew have ten children, six of whom are now adults.
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