The birds and beasts deserve a holiday, too, writes environmentalist Bill McKibben in Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas -- "a day off from the hard work of finding food."
So, on Christmas mornings he and his family take to the out-of-doors and scatter bread and seed.
"It is a mark of the bond we share with the rest of creation," he writes.
Holiday spirit or not, December is the busiest month for the sale of birding supplies: seed, feeders, houses -- and even birdbaths.
"A cold snap or a snowfall, and people suddenly have empathy for the birds," says Thomas Franklin, co-owner with his wife, Cathy, of The Wildlife Authority in Ellicott City. "They might not think about birds the rest of the year, but when winter comes, people get very interested in taking care of them."
Birds that winter over are in critical need of three things, Franklin says.
* Food, because so many natural sources have disappeared until spring.
* Shelter in which to spend the night or escape harsh winds.
* Water for drinking and bathing, because their regular sources might be frozen and because their feathers must be clean to provide proper insulation against the cold.
"These things are all less available in the wintertime," says Franklin, a certified wildlife biologist and the policy director of the Wildlife Society, a professional association, in Bethesda.
"They need to eat a lot more in winter to keep their energy up and maintain their body temperature," says Franklin. "And the drought has been hard on any natural seed sources. The birds may need our help more than normal."
Gifts for the birds are also popular gifts for friends and family.
"Gifts represent the bulk of our sales," says Cathy Franklin, who manages their store. "We sell more in December than any other time of the year."
GIFTS OF FOOD
Providing seed, suet and fruit only supplements the menu for birds, but it helps give them the energy they need to forage for natural foods. And doing so can add grace to your garden.
For example, decorate a tree with solid seed ornaments or hang star-shaped suet or seed cake feeders in your evergreens.
There will be more than carolers at your door if you grace it with a large and colorful harvest wreath made of amaranth, millet, broomcorn, flax, green durum and three colors of sorghum, like the one offered by Gardener's Supply catalog, or one of the smaller seed wreaths.
Provide both food and shelter with a charming -- and edible -- birdhouse, lavishly constructed of seeds and available through catalogs and at most bird centers. After the guests have picked clean the siding, the kids can apply a fresh coat of seeds using peanut butter as an adhesive.
For suet, try an elegant wrought-iron cradle fashioned by a Vermont blacksmith from Gardener's Supply.
Duncraft offers delicate and whimsical metal, sculptured feeding spikes for fruit or suet. Or you can go natural with a refillable birch log for suet from Plow & Hearth.
Birds need water in winter as well as in summer, for grooming and drinking. Clean feathers groomed into their proper shape make for warmer birds. Poor grooming can interfere with flying, too.
When the temperatures dip, you'll need something to keep the water supply from freezing. Try an electric birdbath deicer. The metal wand is safe for plastic birdbaths or pond liners.
If you don't feel like running an extension cord out to your birdbath, try Plow & Hearth's Solar Sipper, an insulated bowl with a black plastic cover to absorb and hold the sun's heat. It will keep 40 ounces of water from freezing in temperatures as low as 20 degrees F. A small opening in the cover allows birds to drink but keeps the water clean.
Gardener's Supply Co., Duncraft and most bird centers also have several models of heated birdbaths, complete with energy-saving thermostats, in pedestal or deck-mounted styles. These can range in price from $49.95 to $99.95.
To prevent the transmission of avian diseases and parasites, make sure to scrub your bird feeders and birdbaths at least once a week with a brush and a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. And take a few minutes to rake up the area underneath your feeders, also to prevent the transmission of disease.
And don't forget the squirrels! Provide them with their own food so they won't compete with birds for theirs. Squirrels enjoy a challenge, and there are lots of squirrel feeders that require them to solve a problem before they can eat. The bungee cord corn feeder or the "squirrel lunchbox" are entertaining for humans as well.
Once you have tended to all these chores, hustle back inside, make a warm cup of cocoa and watch from your window as the grateful birds gather in your yard.
A PLACE TO REST