It’s the most wonderful time of the year… or, Happy Billmas

This is the eve of Bill Monroe’s Birthday, more commonly known as “Billmas.” How does your family celebrate the holiday? Do you have a family? This time of year is so family-oriented that we tend to presume that we all have families when perhaps we shouldn’t (I mean we shouldn’t presume, not that we shouldn’t have families, although in some cases, not having a family would solve so many problems).

In the past few years, I feel like the whole spirit of Billmas has been lost in the rampant commercialization of it all. It’s become all about the presents, and the office parties, and the cheap imported “Birch Babies” (little stuffed likenesses of Birch Monroe that sing “Oh I can hear the joy bells ringing” when you press their faces). We’ve forgotten what the holiday is all about: bluegrass music, fellowship, and multi-part fiddle tunes in A minor.

Then there has been society’s attempt to genericize the holiday, lest we should offend anyone who doesn’t actually like bluegrass music, or may not even know who Bill Monroe is. When asked, some people will say the holiday “is about music, and being together,” which is so vague it misses the point. I’ve even heard “Merry Billmas” and “Happy Monroe’s Day” replaced by the bland and overly inclusive “Happy Father’s Day” as if this time is about just any “father.” I hear this salutation a lot in the month of June, and frankly it offends me.

Recently, my family has decided to scale back and try to keep Bill Monroe’s birthday simple and reverent, keeping the focus on Bill himself, and the music he created, and perhaps reduce some of the stress we all impose on ourselves this time of year.

Every family has to have its own traditions, and I’m not suggesting that you copy all of ours, but here are just some of the ways we’ve tried to bring this most important date on the bluegrass calendar back to its original spirit and its true meaning.

Tonight, on Monroe’s Eve, we’ll gather around the tree (a tall pine) and take turns reading portions of Rosenberg and Wolfe’s The Music of Bill Monroe, including all the recording session information. My wife always cries when we read the personnel list from the Decca session of May 14,1957 with Don Stover and Joe Stuart. 

After a while we’ll exchange small gifts, leaving the larger ones for the morning. We prefer inexpensive and simple ones, like guitar capos or banjo bridges. 

We encourage the kids to end every sentence throughout the evening with the phrase, “here today.”

It’s hard to contain the children’s excitement in the morning, of course, but we urge them to wait to open their presents until at least 7:00 a.m. We feel the growing extravagance of Billmas gifts has gotten out of hand, with over-the-top presents that ordinary people can’t pay for without going into debt. Do we really need to be giving our friends and family members artist tour buses, record labels, or cash to keep a bluegrass festival afloat for three years? We’ve decided to tone it down and simplify, giving nothing more expensive than vintage instruments in moderately good condition as gifts. We try to stay within a budget of $8000 per family member. Do we need more than that to truly appreciate what the holiday is all about?

Billmas breakfast always consists of bagels, and we never get tired of saying, “That’s the chewiest donut I ever ate, and it ain’t a bit sweet,” whether or not Bill Monroe actually said that.

After breakfast, we traditionally play “King Wilkie,” in which the kids swing baseball bats at a piñata-style likeness of Bill Monroe’s favorite horse, hoping to break it open. It’s stuffed with candy, promotional copies of CDs, and record label “one-sheets.” The kids’ joy is infectious, even carrying us through our annual family rendition of Memories of Mother and Dad.

Whatever traditions you may have established in your own family (whether or not you have one), I wish you a meaningful, joyous, and yes, a high and lonesome Bill Monroe’s birthday.