Up until a year ago, it was called Horse Christmas. It’s a school tradition—it’s been happening every December, the last week of school, at a little boarding school outside of Charlottesville for at least fifteen years now. It is a time for the students to celebrate the horses, and to give back to them for all of their patience throughout the year. Here’s what happens:
Admiral, a Welsh pony and the oldest horse in the barn, writes to Santa and requests goodies for himself and his horse friends. Then, the Tuesday before school is out, an evergreen is cut and staked in field in front of the school, and hung with apples and carrots, tied on with red and green yarn. The students in the advanced riding classes decorate themselves and the horses and get ready for a parade—they ride or walk the horses from the riding ring over to the front of the school, where the rest of the students and teachers have gathered around the tree to watch, listen to music, feed treats to the horses, and maybe get a candy cane from Santa or Mrs. Claus.
Planning starts a few weeks in advance—some kids try to coordinate their costumes with the decorations their horses will be wearing, some years there is an overall theme. We’ve had medieval Christmases and storybook Christmases, and one year we even had the three kings (it’s a private school, so religious overtones aren’t a problem—we can do pretty much whatever we want.) There have been toy soldiers and sugarplum fairies, a Baby New Year, a grinch, lots of elves, and even kids dressed as giant boxed presents, with bows on their heads. One year we had a 15 year-old boy in drag as Mrs. Claus. The horses sprout antlers or wear pointy santa hats, and find themselves draped in tinsel and bows, and jingling with sleigh bells when they walk.
A select group of teachers volunteers each year to help decorate. For years now, a week or so in advance, I’ve turned my classroom into a little workshop, teaching my students to make proper 6-sided snowflakes. When the time came, we would rubber cement the snowflakes onto Admiral, and use tape and more snowflakes to cover his escort. The horses are always amazingly patient throughout the process, knowing that the payoff—in the form of apples and carrots—was worth a little bit of glitter and glue.
The local TV station sends a crew out, if it’s a slow day media-wise, and usually we get mentioned, at least briefly, on the 6 o’clock news. A few of the local papers send photographers, and there’s a competition among the riders to see who will be photographed for the paper. (The next morning, I always stop on the way to work to buy a paper. With any luck, I'll be pointing to the color picture and exclaiming to the cashier that I decorated that kid!)
Well, times are changing. Admiral has gone to the great pasture in the sky, and the annual letter to Santa is now written by a beautiful buckskin, Scotch. The snowflake tradition has been retired with Admiral’s passing, and Scotch wears green construction paper Christmas trees, decorated with sequins and rubber cemented to his thick winter coat.
Now, I love this school tradition, and enjoy the arts and crafts aspects of getting ready, as well as a chance to be around the horses and see the kids in a setting other than math class. However, I always rail, at least a little, at least inwardly, against the lack of acknowledgement that the whole world (and the whole school) does not celebrate Christmas. I’ve been lobbying for years (successfully, finally) to call those three weeks that we have off in December Winter Break, instead of Christmas Break. I was happy to cover Admiral with snowflakes—that was a winter thing, not specifically linked to any holiday. I was not as happy to be put in charge of the Christmas trees for Scotch.
Well, the times, they are a-changin’, and the event’s name has now been changed to Horse Holiday. Which means most of us, including me, call it Horse Christma--I mean Holiday. This year, I’m in charge of two horses—Mikey, the (C)ha(n)nuk(k)a(h)* Horse, and Elvis, who will be representing Kwanzaa. Mikey will be sporting a blue saddle blanket, sans saddle, which has been covered with construction paper dreidels, blue and silver ribbons, and gelt. Elvis will have red and green raffia bows tied in his mane, and his saddle blanket has been decorated with the traditional seven candles, a store-bought Happy Kwanzaa banner, and construction paper fruits of the harvest.
Santa will still be there, handing out candy canes. The sounds of Christmas carols will still be broadcast out the window of the nearest classroom. The majority of the horses and riders will have Christmas themes. But this year, as they gather around the tree and begin enjoying their apple and carrot feast, Christmas won't be the only thing being celebrated.
* A friend of Fuzzy and Blue’s name for that Jewish Holiday With Many Spellings.