By Jack Sheedy
In my household the Christmas season is a twelve-day celebration of roasted chestnuts, dried figs, traditional carols, a little reading, a little creative writing, a little watercolor painting, puffing pipe tobacco, and sampling ales.
Yes, we do roast chestnuts, just like in the song.
Overall, it is an annual Yuletide celebration that follows a certain established pattern of tradition hammered out over the course of nearly four decades of adult life – pretty much unchanged, year after year.
So, I thought this year I’d shake things up a bit by introducing a new Christmas tradition – of sitting before the crackling fire swapping Cape Cod sea creature stories.
The familiar Christmas story of Mary, Joseph, the angel Gabriel, the Shepherds, the Wise Men, and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The less familiar sea creature stories are referenced by the Gospel of Mark 1:13, “And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and was with the wild beasts,” and from the Gospel of John 3:14, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Clearly, these “beasts” and “serpents” were none other than New Testament sea creatures.
So, with this entry I celebrate the First and Second Days of Christmas with two stories about orcas, a/k/a killer whales. This past summer, killer whales were sighted off Cape Cod, adding another species to the growing list of creatures swimming along our coastline (to join humpback whales, right whales, finback whales, minke whales, pilot whales, dolphins, seals and great white sharks). My interest in Cape Cod history has me flipping through old newspapers in search of interesting stories from the past. Recently I came across two turn-of-the-20th-century entries about killer whales, one from 1890 and another from 1903, which I thought I might share here.
For the First Day of Christmas (from the Barnstable Patriot, August 26, 1890):
“As if not satisfied with the harm it can do alone, the orca secures the aid of two or three of its fellows, and then the little pack of monsters starts on an expedition. Everything is game to them. If a school of dolphins comes in sight, away go the fierce sea-wolves in hot chase. The frightened dolphins dash madly through the waves, urged to their swiftest speed by terror; but grimly the ravenous pursuers close upon the flying quarry.
“Perhaps a great Greenland whale may cross the path of the marauders. Huge as it is – the largest of created beings – it has no terrors for the bloodthirsty pack. They dart about the giant with lightning velocity; now in front, now underneath, now on the sides; until the bewildered monster, with a lash of his ponderous tail, turn his mighty head downward and seeks the ocean's bed.
“Vain effort! His tormentors follow him apparently with ferocious glee. Up, up again, rage and agony lending added strength, till the surface is reached and all that bulk of flesh shoots out of water and then falls with a ponderous crash, dashing the boiling waves asunder. Still the agile foes are there. They leap over his head, high in the air, and dive under him. They rush at him, here, there, and everywhere. He opens his huge mouth to engulf them. They only mock at the danger, and soon wounded in a hundred places, weakened and powerless, the whale succumbs.”
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
For the Second Day of Christmas (from the Barnstable Patriot, June 22, 1903):
“The most voracious of all marine beasts of prey is the orca or killer whale. It reaches a length of twenty-five feet, and its jaws bristle with teeth from four to six inches long and as sharp as a dirk knife. Its digestive power is proportioned to the tremendous efficacy of its jaws. It seems also to be an atrocious glutton, as one specimen examined contained in its stomach thirteen porpoises and fourteen seals.”
That’s kind of how I feel this Christmas season – gluttonous – like I’ve eaten a dozen porpoises and an extra helping of seal!
Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.