Christmas Organisms, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse An Organismal Christmas

by Tom Volk, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse.

You're missing a beautiful image of my favorite Christmas decoration, Santa on a hallucinogenic mushroomBased on web pages made by Organismal Biology students
at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse.
You can see all of their web pages at

It was Christmas eve, and everyone was feeling merry-- especially Theresa and Fred, who were visiting their grandparents while their parents were in South America on business. Theresa and Fred loved Grandpa Joe and Grandma Edna, and they knew that Christmas would be fun, even if their parents were not going to be there. Theresa was 10 years old, and Fred was 8, so they still had that magical feeling about Christmas.

As they were getting ready on Christmas Eve, Theresa and Fred were helping Grandma Edna to make some of their favorite Christmas treats. Theresa said, "I'm going to make a pumpkin pie."
"I'd rather have carrot cake with lots of cinnamon," said Fred.
Grandpa Joe complained, "I prefer poppy seed cake.
"Better not have that," joked Grandma. "You might have to take a drug test! You also don't want to get tooth decay from all that sugar!" They also made a gingerbread house with vanilla wafers for the chimney.
The baking went very well, and soon all the goodies were piled high on the counter. The smells were amazing! Grandma said, "We'll have to wait to make our Christmas bread with blackseed, or kalonghi seeds later-- we're out of yeast." Grandpa thought all their diets were ruined anyway.

candy canes animatedGrandma said everyone could have one piece of candy before lunch. Theresa wanted a candy cane because of her love for peppermint. Grandpa kidded them that candy canes were made from cane toads, which made Theresa a little squeamish and sent Fred into a giggling fit. Fred decided on a chocolate covered cherry. Grandpa thought he was being healthy by picking one of those pretzels covered in yogurt. Grandpa asked, "Would you like some coffee or a 'barley soda pop' with lots of hops?"
"No, thank you," Grandma replied, "I prefer tea."

Buster with our Christmas treeThe conversation quickly switched to Christmas decorations. "Which Christmas tree should we get this year?" said Grandpa as they ate their snacks. Fred wanted a blue spruce, but Grandma reminded him that blue spruces lose their needles too fast. Fred countered, "How about a Norway spruce?
"Too droopy," everyone said in unison.
"A lot of people like Douglas fir," said Grandpa, "but it's hard to find around here."
"Well then, how about Virginia Pine?" Grandma countered.
"We'll see", said Grandpa, "as long as it doesn't have pine pitch canker. Remember that fungus disease killed our Christmas tree and Christmas spirit back in '89?"
"Remember that year we had a giant redwood?" said Theresa.
Grandpa laughed--" You only remember it as a giant redwood because you were so small."
"We learned in school about the Western Australian Christmas Tree" said Theresa, trying to sound smart, "but it turns out that it is just a colorful parasitic plant on a regular tree."
Grandma interjected, "Should we get a Poinsettia or a Christmas cactus this year?"
Fred replied, "I don't care what kinds we get as long as we have our traditional angel on the top of the tree. or maybe one of those cool paradise tree snakes."

"I don't care what we get as long as we sing some Christmas carols," said Theresa. "What should we sing? There are so many good Christmas carols." Theresa was still hungry after her candy cane and began singing, "Oh bring us a figgy pudding." Grandpa suggested "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Grandma liked some of the more obscure carols, like "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Lo how a Rose e're blooming." Fred's favorite was "I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

12 days of Christmas by Leo Reynoldsa Partridge in a  pear treeanimated notesSo they finally decided to sing "The twelve days of Christmas," finally getting to--

"Seven swans-a-swimming
Six geese-a-laying
Five Go-o-o-ld Rings
Four Calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtledoves
and a partridge in a pear tree."

"That's enough!" said Grandpa. "Do you remember when we created that bird-brained scene on the front lawn for the decoration contest? We're lucky there were no bird eating tarantulas!" he joked. "Do you remember the year we couldn't find our swan decorations for the yard and ended up with those seven mallards -a-swimming' instead? Not quite the same."
"I wanted a little dovekie," said Fred, " but Grandpa said they only live in the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland."
"Too bad people ate all the passenger pigeons. We could have had those," said Theresa, again trying to look smart.

Rudolph, from MSClipArtFinally they sang Theresa's favorite, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Fred asked, "how do those reindeer fly, Grandpa?"
Grandpa replied, "I heard that it's probably Amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom. That's why we have some of those ornaments from Germany on our Christmas tree"
Grandma argued, "I think it's some sort of hemp they were smoking!"
"Well in any case they sure do fly fast to get around the world in just one night," said Theresa.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Theresa and Fred ran to answer it, thinking Santa might be sending them a package from UPS. When they opened the door they were surprised. It was Mom and Dad! They had managed to get home from South America in time for Christmas! In their hands they carried a new cat and a new dog! You'll have to take good care of them, feed them, walk them, and give them their heartworm and Echiniococcus worm medicine every month --plus give them baths to keep them from getting fleas!"

trout, crawfish, and deliciousness.  MS Clipart"You're just in time for the Feast of the Seven Fishes," said Grandma. Since Grandma was Italian, her mother had brought this tradition from the old country. "Remember we eat only fish on days of abstinence, like Christmas Eve. This year we are having the traditional Atlantic cod, which my mother called 'baccala.' I remember being confused when my Greek friends asked if I wanted some 'baklava' for dessert and thinking, 'Why would they be eating fish for dessert?' They sure got a laugh out of that one.
We're also having salmon, both Chinook salmon and Atlantic salmon. We always have calamari, which is a fancy word for cuttlefish or squid. My mother got me to eat it when I was little by telling me it was bologna! Sometimes we have octopus instead, but that's a lot harder to get. We're also having crab-- I couldn't decide between Dungeness crab or king crab, so I got some of each."
"I hope we're not having those Yeti crabs or hairy lobsters. They were just discovered near hot steam vents in the deep ocean," Theresa interjected, again trying to look smart.
Grandpa said, "I'll settle for regular lobster just once every few years.
"I want some stingray or manta ray," said Fred.
"No, none of that this year," said Grandma. "We're also having deep fried shrimp, which is your favorite! We're finally going to eat that muskellunge your Grandfather caught this past summer. It's been taking up so much room in the freezer. Of course we have to have Pacific halibut and flounder. They're so delicious-- but so weird looking! "
"Do you remember when Hisashi, that Japanese exchange student, was here that one Christmas?" asked Grandpa. "He insisted on having sushi for the 'Feast of the seven fishes.' We had Japanese eel and Pacific bluefin tuna-- I was hoping it was not dolphin! I was afraid when Hisashi said he could get us some Fugu, Japanese pufferfish. If you don't prepare it right you can die from the neurotoxins. But I was more worried about the parasites like Anisakis simplex and bacterial infections that you can get from eating raw fish. I didn't want to get a resistant Clostridium difficile infection by taking too much penicillin."
"Well, at least we made it through that year," said Grandma. "Let's eat!"

manger sceneAfter dinner everyone retired to the living room. Fred asked his father to tell the family about the first Christmas. Dad started the story, "Well you already remember that Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the manger, with all the animals, including cows, sheep, goats, and the donkey that Mary rode in on. Of course there were no pigs."
"I wonder why?" asked Theresa.
Dad answered, "Well that's because pigs can be infested with Trichinella, and you can get trichinosis, so Jewish dietary law forbids eating pork. I'm not really sure why they didn't worry about the beef tapeworm."
Fred badgered, "Well, they were also missing an elephant and a mongoose. Does that mean Jewish people can't eat those either?" Everyone laughed.
Theresa asked, "Did the stork bring Jesus after that?"
"Something like that," said Mom, trying to avoid the birds and the bees talk for a few more years.
Dad continued, "Of course, they didn't have an evergreen tree-- they had palm trees-- and Freddie, don't ask if we can have a palm tree for Christmas to be more authentic."
"Dad, you forgot the Three Wise Guys!" said Fred.
"I think he meant the Three Wise Men," corrected Theresa. She was always anxious to be smarter than her brother.
"Yes they arrived later on their camels," said Dad, "and they brought Gold, frankincense and myrrh."
"It's too bad the person that did their page about frankincense dropped out of the class," sighed Mom.

They decided to watch their new DVD, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Theresa was starting to figure things out. "I hate these Christmas shows where they have a penguin with Santa Claus. Don't they know there are no penguins at the North Pole? They're more likely to find polar bears." Fred just rolled his eyes at his sister. He would rather be watching "Finding Nemo" anyway.

"Say, isn't it about time for Santa and his reindeer to come? You had better get to bed!" said Grandpa. After their stockings were hung by the chimney with care, Fred and Theresa went to bed. Soon, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, and visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.

Kissing under the mistletoeSo the parents and grandparents had a little time to themselves. "Do you know you're standing under the Mistletoe?" said Mom to Dad.
Grandma said, "No, your father made a mistake and put up eastern dwarf mistletoe instead. Besides that, you can get Mono from kissing."
Grandpa joked, "If athletes get athlete's foot, what do astronauts get? ....
Grandma sighed, since she had to hear that same joke every year, then added, "It's sure better than some other venereal disease." On that note, they all decided to go to sleep.

When they woke the next morning, Theresa and Fred were excited to see that it had snowed! "Look Theresa!" said Fred. "There's a mule deer and a rabbit! I'm glad the coyotes and wolves didn't get them!" Theresa and Fred ran to their stockings to see what Santa had left. It's a tradition in their family to fill the stockings with candy and nuts, like cashews, almonds, and pistachios. Yummy! Then they played the old German game "Hide the Pickle." On Christmas eve after the children had gone to bed, their parents would hide the pickle ornament on the tree. The next morning the first child who found the pickle got to open the first present. Itís harder to find than you might think! Fred won the pickle contest this year and got to open his stuffed animal presents-- a giant anteater and a three toed sloth!

Christmas dinnerAfter spending most of the morning opening presents, they all sat down for Christmas Dinner. First came the salad, with lettuce, tomato and cucumbers (definitely not sea cucumbers, like Hisashi wanted that one year.)

Next came the main course-- the most delicious turkey ever! Grandma made sure it was well cooked to avoid salmonellosis. The turkey was stuffed with bread, cranberry and shiitake mushroom dressing. They also had lots of vegetables, including mashed potatoes, peas, corn, turnips, and kohlrabi. Fred put an olive on each finger to scare Theresa, but it didn't work. Dad was a vegetarian so they also had a Tofurkey, made with soybeans.

They were all stuffed, so they ended with Jell-O Fruit salad with those little marshmallows, plus Mandarin oranges, raspberries, starfruit, bananas, and camu-camu. Fred picked out the bananas because they made him burp.

After dinner they all went into the living room to nap while the new electric dishwasher did its work. Everyone was very happy that Christmas turned out so well. "There sure are a lot of organisms that help us have a merry Christmas," said Theresa. "Thanks to all the students who spent so much time on their web pages. I hope everyone enjoyed reading about them.

Merry Christmas to all... and to all a good night."

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You can also read Fungi that are necessary for a merry Christmas at

© 2009 by Tom Volk
Professor of Biology
3024 Cowley Hall
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
La Crosse WI 54601
Comments to: my email address