I am eternally grateful to my brother, Jason, for inspiring me to publish "Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn." As I wrote to him on the book’s acknowledgements page: “...this book simply wouldn’t be, were it not for your sly suggestion to me one Christmas morning.”
Though Jason carefully avoids the limelight, I know what a softie he is about "Mr. Dog’s Christmas" and I really wanted him to share his thoughts here on the blog. So I pestered and guilted him the way only a big sister can. He relented and delivered this: the most beautiful recollection of our childhood Christmases—and Mr. Dog’s place there—that I could have hoped for. Thank you once again, little brother.
by Jason Luther
I didn’t grow up at the Hollow Tree Inn, but my hometown was still a pretty nice place and Christmas was always a special time of year. I grew up in Ukiah, a small town in Northern California. Ukiah had four seasons and winters were generally crisp, cool and rainy. Every year or two a large, cold storm would send a few inches of snow our way, just enough to let us make snow angels and eat a few bowls of packed snow drizzled with maple syrup.
We lived in a large house shaded by a massive oak tree and our home had most everything anyone could need, but it didn’t have central heating. All winter long we’d huddle together near a roaring fireplace, the only source of heat in the house. There, in the mornings, my folks would read newspapers and sip coffee while my sister and I read books or groused at each other. In the evenings my folks would sip cocktails and unwind by the fire while my sister and I did homework or groused at each other. At all times a dog or two and a cat would make an uneasy truce and lounge warily near the hearth for warmth.
Our folks worked long hours throughout the years but they always made sure that Christmas was special. They really went all out. As kids we could count on finding bulging stockings hanging under the mantel and lots of beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree. Our tree was tall and full bodied, with an array of ornaments and colored lights covering nearly every inch. The tree always had everything; everything except tinsel… It never had tinsel.
There are a few long-standing traditions in our Christmas routine: Christmas mornings we always throw some terrible Pepperidge Farm fruit turnovers in the oven before checking out our stockings and opening our gifts. We invariably forget about them till they’re burnt, and after we scrape off the burnt bits we usually inhale the turnovers too quickly, torching our tonsils in the process.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our most meaningful Christmas traditions happen on Christmas Eve. For decades now the traditional Christmas Eve dinner has been Mom’s leek and potato soup, served with crusty bread. After the meal we settle down comfortably in the living room for one of the holiday’s highlights: the reading of the story we’ve always called “Mr. Dog’s Christmas,” but which is officially titled “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn,” by Albert Bigelow Paine. My dad has done the reading for many, many years now and as we watch him ease into his comfy leather chair, take a sip of brandy, and clear his throat theatrically a few times, we all know that Christmas is really coming.
The feeling and meaning of the story change and grow with time and age. As a youngster the story seemed longer than it really is, the way a sprawling childhood home seems much smaller when revisited in adulthood. As a kid, the end of the story signaled bedtime and the beginning of a fitful night’s sleep while old Saint Nick worked his magic. It’s not that we were anxious for the story to end, but we knew the ending signaled the coming of the Christmas morning extravaganza.
As an adult, I find myself wishing the tale were a page or two longer, so I could learn a tiny bit more about Mr. ‘Coon, Mr. ‘Possum, the Old Black Crow, and their faithful and fun-loving friend, Mr. Dog. I’d use the extra time to linger over my father’s voice as he reads, pausing in all the right places and landing the all-too-familiar punch lines with quiet joy. I’d steal glances at the faces of the assembled family and friends, taking them all in and watching their pleasure in being present in a special time and place and moment. I’d add these images and feelings to the other Christmas scenes that play in my head like a flickering movie reel, living images of family and friends and pets, many still present and many no longer with us.
I wish I could tell you more about the story and its meaning to my family, but I can’t, because I haven’t time. All I can say is that the story and the ritual of its reading have meant a great deal to my family over the years, decades, and generations. Long after we’ve outgrown the bicycles, lost the tweezers from our Swiss Army knives, and dropped off the funky sweaters at the Goodwill, what remains are the people, the pets, the foods and smells, the places and times and rituals, all of which help make each Christmas something to remember.