All Creatures Great and Small

When my daughter was six we moved into a house in Abasand, close to the forest greenbelt and, unbeknownst to us, almost in the middle of an old traditional “wildlife corridor”, a path the wild animals in this part of northern Alberta had been traversing for years prior to the arrival of man and the development of a neighbourhood. We didn’t see them much during the summer months, but that fall deer were everywhere as they wandered their traditional path, this time finding fences and houses and yards as new obstacles. Joining the deer were flocks of dozens of different varieties of birds, attracted to the bird feeder we kept stocked for them (and admittedly for the occasional squirrel who found the peanuts irresistible).

This happened to take place at a time when I had begun thinking a great deal about the concept of holiday traditions. I had grown up with a few, as had my daughter’s father, and we had passed some of the better ones along to her, like the lavish Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner complete with traditional cultural dishes. After all, the traditions I had grown up with are the thoughts I still return to even now, years after my parents have died and those Christmases at home are nothing but memories I hold tightly to me. While I wanted my daughter to have some of those same traditions I also realized that I wanted to create some of her own, ones that had no long-standing family memory attached to them but that one day she could look back on with fond memories of those years at home.

There were all kinds of creatures, great and small, that visited our new home; the soft-eyed deer, with their shaggy winter coats and quiet demeanour, the plucky little birds with their habit of flitting in and out and the clever and devious squirrels were the perfect opportunity to create a new tradition. I began researching the making of bird feeders of the natural kind, finally landing on cored apples, coated in peanut butter and rolled in bird seed, as the ideal treat for all our animal friends.

We made them one cold evening in December as the brisk winds blew snow against our doors and windows. I wasn’t really ready for how messy it was, peanut butter stuck to the floor and in hair and on the fridge. Bird seed was scattered across the hardwood, and the dog could not feign innocence given her peanut-butter frosted breath, betraying how often she had stolen samples from the table when our backs were turned. It was terrific fun, though, as we cored dozens of apples and slathered them with peanut butter, rolled them in birdseed and popped them into the freezer to wait until December 24.

On Christmas Eve we leashed up the dog, grabbed our bags of apple bird feeders and headed into the forest next door, hanging the apples wherever seemed a likely spot or where we saw the soft hoof prints in the snow. We laughed and talked while we created a new tradition we began to refer to as “Christmas for the Creatures”, and after the last apple was hung we returned home to a warm fire and to celebrate our own Christmas.

The next day we took another walk, finding almost all the apples gone, some entirely ripped from the trees while others had been ferociously pecked. In a couple of spots anxious squirrels eyed us from trees while making loud chittering noises, warning us away from their new found treats, and when we moved along we watched them scurry down from the trees to tackle the apples once more. It was one of the most spectacular walks in my entire memory, and a moment in time I will never forget as my daughter in her snowsuit raced eagerly ahead to find the next apple, coming back to tell us it was gone and she had found fresh hoof prints in the snow.

Traditions don’t need to be the memories that are handed down to us over the years. Whether our memories of holidays past are good or bad, we have the opportunity every single year to create new traditions and new memories. We can add or subtract them, keeping the ones we love, discarding the ones we dislike and creating new ones along the way, so one day the “new” traditions are just as treasured as those that are decades, or even centuries, old.

We still celebrate Christmas for the Creatures, and I have been told we have inspired others to do the same, leaving handmade feeders for the wild creatures and creating their own traditions and memories. On cold winter nights as we approach the holidays I remember my parents and the many traditions they gave to me, and I watch my daughter as she begins to think about creating her own traditions to add to the ones she already has tucked into her memories. To me – and now to her – this is what the holidays truly are, a time for memory and family, and a time to celebrate peace and happiness with all creatures, great and small.

YMM Magazine

October, 2015

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