Winter Cardinal

A bright red male Cardinal and a dark "snowbird," a.k.a. a Dark-eyed Junco, offer a fine contrast to the white and gray scenery on a snowy morning.

Hooray Jake, hooray John

Breakin’ up Christmas all night long

Santa Claus come, done and gone

Breaking up Christmas right straight along.

Last week, on the 5th, to be exact, I stiffened my spine, looked at the bare branches of the still wonderfully fragrant Balsam fir Christmas tree—OK, also known as, to avoid offending my Jewish ancestors, a Chanukah bush—and asked Google to play folk magician John McCutcheon’s version of the end-of-the-holiday-season classic, a song called “Breakin’ Up Christmas.” (Somewhere around the estate, we still have John’s version on a vinyl LP, but I’m not precisely sure where, so it was easier to just request that my smart speaker do the job.)

The venerable tune, according to folklorist Dave Tabler, writing on the Appalachian website, probably originated with a North Carolina fiddler and singer named William Preston “Pet” McKinney, who was born in 1846, served in the Civil War, and spent most of his long life—McKinney passed away in 1926 at the ripe, old age of 79—in the then-isolated foothills of south-central Virginia in the area around the traditional-banjo-picking capital of the universe, Galax.

“During rainy periods, that region’s roads, made mostly of red clay with no gravel, historically became so muddy that wagon wheels would sink in up to their axles,” wrote Tabler. “This made travel during inclement parts of the year either difficult or impossible.”

Christmas in that area was often the rainy season, so folks didn’t get out much, and instead, often went from local house to local house to gather and, for the twelve days of the holiday season, sing, play, dance, and party. McKinney’s song was. We’re told, the highlight of the nightly celebrations.

But all good things must come to an end, and, by tradition, we’re allowed only 12 sanctioned days and nights of Christmas. After that period comes to a close on Twelfth Night, it’s time to put away the decorations and get down to the more sober period of reflection known as, well, winter.

It turns out, however, that there is not universal agreement about the precise date that is celebrated in another song by 12 drummers percussing. In the Anglican tradition adhered to by the Church of England, the 12-day period begins on December 25th and ends on the 5th of January. By contrast, Catholics start counting on the day after Christmas and so wind up calling a halt to the festivities on the 6th, which is also celebrated as the day the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Babe in the manger.

Given the Naturalist’s Jewish traditions, either date would be fine as the marker signifying the removal of decorations, and, in truth, I probably wouldn’t object if we waited, as is the case in other traditions, until the local fire department arrived to mandate the removal of needle-less and highly combustible no-longer-evergreens. But my wife comes from Anglican, or, at least, English stock, and I had time on the 5th, so, with John McCutcheon playing on the Home speaker, I gently removed the final ornament, a delicate glass tree topper, put on my gloves and eye goggles, tilted the tree towards the door, and made my way outside. In the chill, I unbolted the fir from the tree stand and then dragged it around the house to its winter quarters by a large witch hazel where it would be roped upright, decorated with the garlands of popcorn and cranberries the tree had worn indoors, and serve as a cold-weather roost and shelter for our songbirds and squirrels. We get a lot of pleasurable mileage out of a Christmas tree.

To be sure, the purging of the tree was basically the only ornamentation that was removed and re-stored by Three Kings Day, which was certainly a better way to celebrate the 6th than bemoaning the arrival of More-than-Three Not So Wise Men... and Women in the nation’s capitol last year, and we can only hope that our tardiness will not bring bad luck and misfortune to the ridge. If tradition is any guide, we’ll probably have the job finished and everything back in the attic by the weekend, after which we’ll sing a final chorus of “Breakin’ Up Christmas” and revel in memories until we start all over again next Thanksgiving.

And if we’re still a little past time in completing the tasks, blame it on the Weather Channel and that lurid orange box that appeared on the afternoon of the 6th bearing the words WINTER STORM WARNING. When I left home that morning to visit my dermatologist and have another round of precancerous skin lesions removed, the wages of too much sun exposure in my misspent youth, I planned on a leisurely afternoon stroll through a newly purchased refuge to monitor beaver activity and to hunt for the first sign of winter stoneflies. These hardy insects often emerge from their stream-bound adolescence at the first sign of seasonal warmth, and with the temperatures well into the 50s several days after the New Year, I figured I just might spot the first adults of the insect order Plecoptera.

But it had turned a little too cold by the time I was able to hunt for the critters and the WC warning suggested that I’d best return home more quickly than I’d planned to haul wood and ready the stove for what now was looking like an actual storm that would, several days later, be accompanied by a genuine taste of the Deep Freeze. I worked quickly into the twilight, then dark, and by the time the developing storm had swallowed the crescent moon, I was ready for whatever would greet me during the overnight hours and daybreak.

Too bad the first taste of real winter hadn’t arrived before Christmas instead of waiting until post-breakup, but I had the shovels at hand, the pacemaker dialed up to handle the job, and my cross-country skis and skiing partner, a.k.a., my son Noah, ready to take advantage of nature’s blessing. The birds quickly found the tree and its offerings of food and shelter. I put another log on the fire, smiled, and headed out into the snow.

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