An Additional Chapter from Herodotus
(a tribute to C.S. Lewis)
Once upon a time in the village of Acirema, a strange tradition resided with the people, though, perhaps the word tradition is not the best word to describe the antics that were found to take place amongst the people. You see, the people did not think of Exmass as a tradition, they saw it as a grand celebration—one of the High Days of the whole year that people looked forward to with great anticipation. Yet, despite the anticipation and despite the fact that people called it a “celebration,” there was little about this time of year that one would describe as celebratory. Perhaps I should explain.
Every year the people of Acirema “celebrate” what they refer to as the High Day of Exmass, yet the activities of preparation for this high day begin a full month prior to the official day of celebration. Indeed, there are some who begin their preparation months or even a full year prior, but these people are considered rebellions and are resented by the bulk of the Aciremanians, thus for now, we shall simply focus on the official tradition as is mandated in the unofficial law of the land—known as the Manual of Etiquette, written by the village matriarch, Deer Abigail.
Officially, then the High Day of Exmass begins with a lesser celebration to “kick off” the preparations. This lesser celebration is referred to as Saint Guineafowl Day. On this day, families gather together for the ritual slaughter and consumption of a large fowl. On occasions, some families will choose another animal, often from the swine family, but fowl is the proper sacrifice according to the manual. The rule is that family members are required to consume as much of the fowl as physically possible in one sitting and to accomplish this, sometimes extended family members will gather to join in together with the feasting. None of the bird must go to waste. If there is any left over, it must be saved and reheated for meals on the following days until it is all consumed. Even the bones are to be boiled down in a dish called “broth” so that even the essence of the fowl is fully removed and consumed by the family—again, nothing may go to waste.
In addition to the ritual slaughter and consumption on Saint Guineafowl Day, this day is accompanied by two additional traditions in Acirema. The first is the Saint Guineafowl Sycam Parade. Rowland Sycam was an entrepreneur in the early history of Acirema who was involved in the history of the helping people prepare for the High Day of Exmass, and thus, in his honor, his retail stores host a tremendous parade on Saint Guineafowl Day. In this parade, adults dress up as children in all forms of costumes and disguises and walk along a “Route” that extends for a mile or so. Some of the adults choose not to walk, thus add exotic decorations to their cars and trucks so that they can drive the distance of the Route—these decorated cars, they call “floats” for an undiscovered reason. In addition to adults, children are often dressed in adult dress uniforms, like that of soldiers, and given musical contraptions, being expected to then march in-step and play a song on their instrument at the same time.
One of the favorite elements of the parade is the appearance of the village’s famous singers. These famous singers will stand on the “floats” and pretend to sing along with a recording of their own songs. Those who come to watch the parade, called “Spectators” then pretend that the singers are actually singing and critique how well (or poorly) each singer “performs” their song. This performance also plays an important role in the preparations that lead to Exmass, for it is the songs that are chosen and thus performed that will be repeated at regular intervals on the radio in the initial portion of the preparation season. This, then, gives instruction to the people as to which musical arrangements to purchase and give to loved ones, but we get ahead of ourselves.
The final element of the parade is the construction of giant balloons, each depicting a local deity from the various mythological religions that people pretend not to practice. Citizens of Acirema are supposed to worship in one national religion, but in reality, they practice many, spending Sundays giving lip-service to the national religion in central buildings called “churches” and then spending the following Saturday morning in front of a contraption called a “Television” which broadcasts the legends and myths that shape the culture. It is these legends and myths that form the subject matter of these balloons, which float high in the air (in contrast to the “floats” which roll on the ground) and act as the spiritual guardians of the participants and spectators of the parade.
After the St. Guineafowl Sycam Day parade is through, and everyone congratulates themselves on how wonderful the decorations and floats were, treating such as the most important news of the day (certainly more important than wars or economic difficulties, for these things detract from the events in the season to come), then comes the final activity of St. Guineafowl Day—“football.” Football is the national athletic competition of Acirema and has little to do with either feet or balls, but I am told that if I were an Aciremanian, I would understand this colloquial reference. Anyhow, in this competition, two teams of men line up against each other with each teammate covered from head to toe in padding and other protective gear. Then there is an oval-shaped object called a “pig-skin” even though it is made out of cow-hide. Each team gets a turn holding on to the “pig-skin” and tries to run it or throw it past the other team and deliver it to the opposite end of the playing field, which is called a “grid-iron” though it is neither a grid nor made out of iron (again, I am told that were I an Aciremanian, I would understand this reference). While one team tries to get the pig-skin to the other side of the field, the other team seeks to clobber the person who happens to be holding the ball. Such is the nature of the game with both sides seeking to clobber each other and the team which gets the ball across the other team’s side (called a “goal-line”) wins the competition. The only reference to feet that I can come up with is that at times, the pig-skin is kicked from one side to the other either to change which team gets to be clobbered or to try and kick it through a giant set of prongs resembling a bent fork. And thus we end our description of the day, except for a final comment that nearly all Aciremanians both look forward to the day and regret the level to which they have participated in the eating of fowl. To express their regret, they chant in unison the words, “Oh, my stomach, I feel sick,” and then usually eat a little bit more to make sure that fellow Aciremanians do not think them lax in their celebration.
After the celebration of St. Guineafowl Day, comes the real preparations for Exmass, beginning with the celebration of a day called, “Black Friday.” The proper etiquette for Black Friday is to get up before dawn, pile into the car along with nearly every other Aciremanian, and to fill the streets with traffic. The initial objective is to have so many vehicles on the road that all movement is reduced to a near standstill, and then to yell at each other from behind closed and locked doors, often inventing names for the other drivers as they try and budge their vehicle in front of your own. The secondary objective for this day is the reason for its name (this name one needs not be an Aciremanian to understand). This traffic jam caused by all of the Black Friday celebrants is known to frustrate even the most seasoned law enforcement officer and hence the name was coined by those law enforcement officers who dreaded the coming of the day.
The second part of the Black Friday celebration takes place when the celebrants are actually able to arrive at the shopping centers. It is rumored that some people, hoping to avoid the celebration of the traffic jam, actually go out the day before, after they finish their St. Guineafowl Day celebrations, drive to the stores, and sleep in their cars. This rumor has not been substantiated personally, though it has been received from reliable sources. Regardless of when the celebrants arrive at the stores, the goal is to charge into the store as quickly as possible, elbowing and running other participants underfoot. In some ways, this seems to be a public replaying of the athletic event of “Football” from the day before, just without the pig-skin or goal lines. Prior to Black Friday, the stores have artificially elevated the prices on their products so that on Black Friday they can return their prices to normal and get the celebrants to think that they are getting a bargain. This aspect of the event is called a “sale.” Finally, celebrants gather up all of their “sale items,” and pay for them with little pieces of colored plastic (called a “credit card”—an invention which allows the owner to “buy” an item and then pay three-times the original price of the item across an extended period of time). Then, the participants jump back in their cars and celebrate the traffic jam one more time until they eventually arrive home once again that evening, just in time to eat more of the left-over food from St. Guineafowl Day, go to bed, and wake up the next morning to worship their culture’s ancient myths before the television.
The next several weeks between Black Friday and Exmass are filled with the important pastime of mailing what are called Exmass Cards. Exmass Cards are pieces of folded heavy paper with decorations on the front and a holiday greeting inside wishing the recipient well. The pictures on the cards are usually nostalgic and contain winter scenes even though in most parts of Acirema it never snows on Exmass. Nevertheless, such is what people expect and hope for each year. The ritual goes something like this: each Aciremanian purchases a stack of these cards adequate to send to each of their friends and acquaintances. Cards are signed and then put in the mail with each citizen keeping a careful list of who they sent the cards to.
A second list is then kept that records the cards that they in turn receive from acquaintances. Then the lists are compared. The ritual then gets rather confusing as individuals get their lists made. If one discovers, when one is comparing the lists of cards sent out and received, that someone not on the initial list has sent them a card, then the proper etiquette (again according to their local guru, D. Abigail) is to raise one fist and curse the heavens and to go back to the store to buy another Exmass Card to send to this offender. Similarly, after Exmass, the lists are compared and if more than two Exmass seasons go by without receiving an Exmass Card from someone on the list, their name is struck off—again with hand shaking and cursing. At times, this can get rather comical as people are always dropping off and adding people to their lists, always following the proper custom, which is designed to get them into the “Spirit of Exmass.”
When the day of Exmass finally comes, families celebrate with a routine of giving expensive gifts and trinkets, most of which will be broken (some intentionally and some unintentionally) within a few weeks. Again, the purpose of the gifts is to be in the “Spirit of Exmass” and oftentimes the parents in the family will pretend that a portion of the gifts come from a winter sprite whose name escapes me, but he is purportedly rather fat, flies around the world in an old sleigh pulled by Caribou which have the ability to fly. When he arrives at each home, he diminishes his size, sneaks into each house through a variety of openings, and then leaves the gifts. It is said, also, that if one wants this winter sprite to leave his gifts, the family must leave behind an offering of milk and cookies, lest lumps of coal be left in stockings in lieu of the gifts. The stockings are not real stockings, nor will they fit the feet of anyone in the family, but are single cloth and felt boots of varying sizes (not pairs, but one only) which are hung for the express purpose of being filled with candy and small gifts. Most of the children do not believe this fanciful tale, but they tend to go along with it, knowing that one day they too will be parents and expected to carry on the Exmass tradition as their parents did before them.
It should be noted that parents go to great extremes to get their children to believe in this winter sprite, even to the extent of hiring fat older men to sit in shopping centers dressed up as this snow sprite and to tell the children that he really is the one who will visit their home that Exmass Eve. Children who are too small or daft to know better are forced to sit on the knees of such men (oftentimes while screaming in protest) and tell them what they want the faux-sprite to bring them. Then pictures are taken which serve to do two things—first, they further traumatize the child (still part of getting into the “Exmass Spirit”) and second they serve to “commemorate” the experience so that parents will be able to show their friends and family just how faithful they have been to the “Exmass Traditions.”
Yet, we digress from the tradition of the gifts. The gifts are placed around a tree that is covered by tinsel, lights, and other random ornaments. The tree has been chopped down for this express purpose and will be disposed of after the season is through. Each gift is also covered with brightly colored paper called, “wrapping,” which is designed to keep the object hidden from spectators and to make them more interesting to open on Exmass morning. There is one difficulty with the tradition of the gifts, though, for just as with Exmass Cards, two separate lists must be kept, so too, lists are kept to keep track of Exmass gifts. For if you record that someone has given you a gift of a greater value than the gift you have given them, once again, you are expected to shake your hand to the heavens and curse, making proper notation in your records so that you are not so embarrassed in the following year. Similarly, if someone to whom you have not given a gift chooses to give you one, then you must not only note that while shaking your hand and cursing, but also you are obliged to immediately run out an purchase a similarly valued gift for the person in question. Lastly, when the gifts are fully catalogued, the children have a special task that is germane to their age-group. They must write a note saying, “thank you,” and how wonderful they thought the gift was (whether or not they thought the gift was wonderful). Such a practice is only performed by children because adults uniformly hate to write such notes (largely as they were forced to write such notes when they were children), but think that it is a good way to discipline their rambunctious children, so enforce this practice upon them with solemnity and zeal.
Finally, Exmass comes to a close with another feast, similar to that of St. Guineafowl Day, but this time with a wider variety of foods and no requirement that fowl be eaten. The gorging of food is followed by the watching of various athletic events, including more “Football” and is often accompanied by family favorite programs that teach “The Spirit of Exmass.” There is also a tradition of the “Exmass Wine,” which is a drink made from grapes and allowed to ferment. This, they drink in abundance either while they are eating or while they are watching the Exmass programs on television. The tradition is to drink enough that when one wakes up the next morning, ones head hurts as if it has been hit by a football player (perhaps this is an attempt at vicarious participation in their favorite sport). When one wakes up in such a manner, the proper etiquette is to curse again and avoid others until the feeling wears off. It is also said that some families read the story of the first Exmass, but this report is rather unsubstantiated.
On a final note, upon further study, it seems that there are some Aciremaians who are largely dissenters to this Exmass tradition. Apparently, they claim that Exmass has its origins in a religious holiday called Krissmass, or something very close to that (these dissenters are often mocked and scoffed amongst the rolls of the Aciremaians as being ones without the “Spirit of Exmass,” so they typically keep to themselves during this time and have been hard to study). What I have learned, though, has been quite interesting. They will often participate in some of the Exmass activities, though with a great deal more restraint. What my informants tell me, though, is that these Aciremaians believe that their God became human in a far away place on this day and then later would die in a horrible way to atone for their sins. This is interesting to speculate upon and perhaps demands further research, for they believe that the gift of Krissmas is God himself, not the things packaged in glossy paper. Indeed, something to investigate further…