The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Nature of Christmas
by Ro Wauer

Everywhere we look this time of year is indicators of Christmas. Decorated stores and homes with Christmas trees with all kinds of spangles and lights dominate our existence. Most businesses now begin their Christmas salesmanship before Thanksgiving. Christmas has become so commercial that its real meaning is all but forgotten. It may take a visit into the outdoor world to understand our real natural heritage.

My backyard, for example, is full of Christmas. The bright red cardinal is one of our very best examples. The male cardinal, sometimes called "redbird," cannot help but remind us of the Christmas season. It is so bright and cheery, and its presence at our feeders reminds us that we humans must be good stewards of our resources if we are to continue to enjoy our wildlife. Cardinals usually appear in flocks in winter, taking advantage of handouts when available. Yet, our American robins, another yard bird this time of year, are far more independent and never utilizing feeders. This will, however, come to birdbaths. Robins, in fact, spend an inordinate amount of time at water, bathing and drinking. A birdbath in winter and throughout the year attracts a greater variety of birds than feeders.

Robins may occur in huge flocks in winter, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Christmas Bird Count in the Victoria area regularly tally 2,000 to 6,000 individuals. They arrive in late fall, depending on the weather conditions to the north of South Texas, reach peak numbers about Christmastime, and move on soon afterwards. During their stay they, along with cedar waxwings and a number of other songbirds, consume most of the available berries of yaupon, winterberry, beautyberry, and various other species.

Mother Nature apparently provides the many red berries not just to feed our wild birds, but also to please our human aesthetics at Christmastime. Besides the common red berries mentioned above, there are a number of other red berries in our fields and gardens. American, English, and Japanese hollies, cottoneaster, sacred bamboo, tartar honeysuckle, and pyracantha all ripen by Christmas. Combining these red fruits with the abundant evergreen leaves of many of our common plants, along with the occasional red to yellow "fall-color" leaves, and the outdoors offers us a marvelous mosaic of colors.

Mornings can be especially festival for those of us that are up early when the dew glistens off the various spiderwebs. It is like the spiders are providing their share of Christmas decorations by weaving their own tinsel. A close look at many of those spider webs reveals an intricate pattern that is even more beautiful than any of our commercial decorations.

There is still another feature of Christmas in the outdoors that, because it is now part of our plastic culture, we tend to forget. Mistletoe, a fascinating plant that grows on our trees and shrubs, is full of life in winter when it seems that life for many plants is at its lowest ebb. Once gathered as a symbol of life and purity by the Druids of ancient Gail, mistletoe figures in legends of Germany and Scandinavia, and today is hung at Christmas as a promise of life and fertility. Although mistletoe was once though to be tainted with heathenism, it is now a symbol of life and brought into households at Christmastime as a decoration and also to perpetuate the pleasant custom of kissing.

Our natural world is truly remarkable. And as we give thanks for the true meaning of Christmas, let's not forget the significance of the world outdoors.

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