As I’ve written before, my dad has read Mr. Dog’s Christmas to me every Christmas Eve since I was two years old. I don’t remember those very early readings, of course. In fact, I don’t have recollections of Christmas until my sixth—a Christmas that’s immortalized in my family for an incident that ended with me being sent to my room. It’s also the Christmas that marked my transition from believer to playing-along-er.
One of many magical Christmases past.
By my sixth year I was beginning to explore the frontier of skepticism. And of course, Santa Claus is an easy target for the budding skeptic. At the same time, I still very much wanted to believe. It’s a tentative dance many kids do around that age: to believe or not to believe. I think at some level, even when we’re young, we know it’s a choice.
My parents heartily encouraged believing. They went all out to make Christmas a truly magical experience. Among the many weird and wonderful rituals they established was the burning of the wish list. My list was not written out in advance, nor mailed to the North Pole via the good old postal service. Instead, on Christmas Eve, I’d settle down with pen and paper and carefully transcribe the list of goodies I was hoping Santa would bring for me at Christmas—the list I’d been I’d been yammering on about for weeks. Then, with great ceremony, I placed my paper in the fire. My parents explained that it would magically transform into some kind of smoke signal that Santa would pick up as he was flying over our home in his sleigh, so he’d know just what to leave under our tree.
Well, just a day or two before this particular Christmas, while shopping with my mom, I spied a little box of pink soaps in the shape of roses. And I fell in love with them, in the way only a six-year-old girl can do. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. On Christmas Eve, as I sat by the fire finishing up my wish list, I had the brilliant idea to ask Santa for the soaps.
Almost immediately, another thought occurred to me: You know, Betsy, this whole Santa thing might not be real. I pondered that for a bit, wobbling back and forth between belief and skepticism. In the end, my lust for those soaps and my faith in Old Saint Nick prevailed—onto the list they went! Vaguely troubled by uncomfortable thoughts (What if the soaps don’t come? Will that mean Santa’s not real?), I decided it was best not to tell my parents about the last minute addition. I popped my list into the fire before anyone was the wiser and toddled off to bed.
That Christmas morning was even more gloriously exciting than usual, thanks to my giddy anticipation of the soaps. I don’t actually remember a lot about that Christmas morning. I’m told there were a lot of presents under the tree, but I don’t even remember opening any of them. What I remember is the question running silently through my head all morning: Did he bring the soaps??? Finally, when it seemed that every last present had been opened, I wasn’t satisfied. I searched under the tree, behind the tree, around every square inch of that tree for one more tiny box. It wasn’t there. I turned to my parents and said: “Is this all there is?”
It strikes me as I write this now how freighted those words are—Is this all there is? This that we can see and touch and verify and explain rationally? Or is there something more profound, more magical, going on behind the scenes, something even grander than the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis? Many of us want to believe there is.
Of course, I wasn’t that philosophical at the time. And, as you can imagine, that’s certainly not how my parents interpreted my question. They had no idea what I was talking about. I had just received a cornucopia of amazing gifts. My reaction must have been quite beyond belief. I was encouraged, shall we say, to go to my room and ponder my many blessings.
Despite the traumatic ending to my sixth Christmas, the holiday continued to be a truly magical time for me. And it’s still my favorite time of year, not least because it’s a reminder of what I love best about my family—our shared, playful reverence for the rituals.
My first memories of Mr. Dog were made the following year, when I was seven. We had just moved to Ukiah, where we lived in a house high on a hill—it was remote and Deep Woodsy in a way—and it’s the first time that I remember my dad reading the story to us. It was a wonderful Christmas, as they’ve all been, every single one of them. Even though I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, in my heart I was able to suspend that disappointment by participating fully in the magic that I then understood my parents created, and in finding ways to create it for them and my brother.
I think this must be one reason Mr. Dog’s Christmas is so special to me—not just because of the beloved reading ritual, but because of the way Paine so deftly handles the question of Santa's realness. He shows us that the shock of discovering the truth is quickly forgotten when you realize that someone you love has gone to incredible lengths to create a too-good-to-be-true experience for you. Someone you love loves you enough to create magic for you.
Having now been through many Christmas stress miracles myself, putting on the show for my own child, my appreciation has deepened. This thing that we do for one another and why we do it, the love and the creativity that go into it, is what makes Christmas so enduringly enchanting for me.
Tiny soaps that look like roses, a jolly fat man in a red suit who delivers presents from a flying sleigh, people who love you enough to break the bank and stay up all night to deliver a not-to-be-believed show for you…. Life is full of magic. Maybe it’s all there is.
As channeled to Henry and Betsy Cordes by Albert Bigelow Paine
One night, in the House of Many Windows, when the Little Ladies were all snug in their beds, their mother came into the drawing room to sit by the fire with the Storyteller.
“I wonder,” she mused aloud, “whether the folks at the Hollow Tree Inn ever have a little night cap?”
“Well,” said the Storyteller, “I’m fairly certain they must. Have I ever told you the story about Mr. Dog introducing them to the fine art of cocktail mixology?”
“Why no,” she chuckled, “I don’t believe you have. It sounds delightful. Why don’t I pour us both a sip of brandy and we can sit here together for a spell while you tell it to me?”
The Storyteller nodded his ascent, and in a moment his Mrs. was back with two judiciously-sized glasses of golden-brown liquor. They paused together to sip and savor before the Storyteller cleared his throat and began.
Well… The Hollow Tree folks were all sitting around the fire one dark December evening, with not much to do. They had each told their best stories three or four times, and even some of the not-so-good ones once or twice, so that they were all pretty tired of each other’s company. And yet there wasn’t any activity outside either, and it was dreadfully cold besides.
Mr. Possum was all stretched out latitudinally on the sofa, and the Old Black Crow was settled into a nice deep rhythm in his rocking chair. Mr. ‘Coon kept pacing back and forth, and peering out the windows into the darkness. And each of them was secretly wishing he were more tired, so that he could just fall asleep, so bored and restless were all three.
Well by and by Mr. ‘Coon noticed something out there in the blackness. It was a tiny little light, flashing on and off as it passed among the trees, getting brighter all the time.
“Look there!” said Mr. ‘Coon. “I think someone’s coming our way!”
“Really?” said Mr. ‘Possum with a hint of trepidation, as he lifted his head to peer over the back of the sofa.
“Mmbrghrrmm,” grumbled the Old Black Crow, as he rousted himself creakily from his chair.
The light came closer and closer, and soon enough revealed itself to be a lantern, swinging back and forth in the paw of some large creature.
Mr. ‘Coon hastily pulled the door’s latchstring inside, and swung the window out on its hinges, calling warily into the darkness, “Who goes there?” But when the visitor cried out, “It’s me!” they all recognized his voice at once.
“Why, that’s Mr. Dog!” said Mr. ‘Possum, spilling himself off the sofa and upright.
In their excitement they all three ran for the door, which they had a bit of difficulty opening, being a good deal tangled up. But open it they did, and fairly yanked Mr. Dog in out of the cold.
Mr. Crow, ever the gentleman, took Mr. Dog’s coat, and Mr. ‘Coon brought him some house slippers to keep his paws warm. It was just that moment that Mr. Possum noticed Mr. Dog’s enormous knapsack.
“What have you got in there?” he said, pointing to it.
As Mr. Dog swung the bag from his back, it emitted a very musical chorus of clinks, and when he flipped open the top he revealed a robust complement of unusually-shaped glass bottles, each filled with a mysterious liquid of its own peculiar hue.
“I got the idea last Friday night,” said Mr. Dog. “I spied Mr. Man and his friends having what they called a ‘happy hour,’ and I’ve been wanting to try it ever since. The very first minute I had a chance, I borrowed these things from the cabinet and set out for the Hollow Tree.”
So they commenced to laugh and hurrah, they were so thrilled to have this new entertainment to look forward to. And I wish I could tell you all that happened that evening, but I can’t, because this brandy is making me very sleepy. But before I nod off, I’ll share the recipes of the ‘Coon, the ‘Possum, the Old Black Crow—and, of course, Mr. Dog’s, too—so you might try your own Hollow Tree Happy Hour sometime this December.
Mr. ‘Coon’s “Eggnog Grog”
3 oz. coconut milk
One egg yolk
1 oz. dark rum
1 tbsp. simple syrup, or to taste
Nutmeg (whole clove, for grating)
Pour the coconut milk, egg yolk, dark rum and simple syrup into a cocktail shaker along with a good deal of ice. Rattle the shaker about vigorously, for as long as you can stand it. Strain the contents into a Nick & Nora glass (or a duck egg cup, which is what Mr. ‘Coon prefers). Use a very fine-toothed grater to sprinkle freshly-ground nutmeg generously over the top, and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
Mr. Possum’s “Dark Delight”
2 oz. gin
3/4 oz. elderflower liqueur
Generous handful of ripe blackberries
Reserve one especially plump and luscious blackberry for garnish, and muddle the rest at the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the gin and elderflower liqueur and shake until your paws are frozen, nearly to the bone. Strain into your finest china cup and saucer and garnish with a sprig of mint.
The Old Black Crow’s “Devilish Green Sour”1.5 oz. Pernod
1.5 oz. gin
0.5 oz. Velvet Falernum
0.5 oz. lime juice
1 egg white
1 stick black licorice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and dry shake (no ice) for two minutes, to blend and allow the egg white to develop a lovely foam. Add ice, and shake until your wing feathers are tinged with frost. Strain into a martini glass (or a festive parfait cup, which is what Mr. Crow’s favors for this beverage) and garnish with a stick of black licorice. You’ll get extra credit for artfully carving your licorice into the shape of a crow quill!
Mr. Dog’s “Long, Low Growl”
1.5 oz. blended scotch
1.5 oz. strong ginger beer
Blood orangePour ingredients into a rocks glass (or borrow one of Mr. Man’s antique Toby mugs, as Mr. Dog likes to do!). Add a jumbo ice cube, stir for a moment, and garnish with a generous slice of blood orange. Now take a bite out of your toothsome libation!
Pen-and-ink illustration is an extraordinarily versatile technique with a long and storied history. While artists use pen-and-ink for everything from fine art to political cartoons, many of the most enduring examples come to us in children’s books. It seems there’s something about the technique that lends itself to exploring the deep and often surreal realm of the child’s imagination. I spoke with our extraordinary illustrator, Adam McCauley, about his use of crow quill pen-and-ink for Mr. Dog.
Adam McCauley, 2014.
Two of the major sources of inspiration McCauley mentioned were John Tenniel and Maurice Sendak. Both used pen-and-ink to tremendous effect, but with contrasting styles. Tenniel’s illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” have loose lines, and a more spare effect that focuses on the characters—in McCauley’s words, “Tenniel’s work is virtuosity in its looseness.” Maurice Sendak, best known for his classic tale “Where the Wild Things Are,” was likewise an expert with pen-and-ink. But his backgrounds are much richer, and every nook and crevice is fleshed out with value.
John Tenniel, 1865.
Maurice Sendak, 1967.
Though he drew ideas from both illustrators, McCauley’s work is very much his own. In his work as a professor at the California College of the Arts, he sees students struggle all the time to describe a space using pen and ink. “One of the fun things about the technique of crow quill,” McCauley notes, “is you make the marks in a volumetric way, and so you’re describing form and space with the direction of your pen stroke.”
Adam McCauley, 2014.
Every mark has the potential to communicate volume and space. “It’s easy to block in value areas using straight-up hatching,” he says, “but it's when careful thought is given also to the forms within the value areas that a pictorial space blooms into a parallel reality.” Line weight and linear connection are equally important. Heavier and connected lines come forward; lighter and disconnected lines move back. “I try to teach my students this when they do it,” says McCauley. “It takes them a little while to grasp it but once they do they’re just like WHOA! This looks so much more spatial.”
J.M. Condé, 1898.
Adam McCauley, 2014.
Albert Bigelow Paine published “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” in 1898, as the summation of a series of stories following the hijinks of the Hollow Tree people and their mercurial friend Mr. Dog. He worked with illustrator J.M. Condé, whose drawings are characterized by a spare and sketchy quality perhaps influenced by his work in comic strips. McCauley felt that although they demonstrate a nice gestural approach, Condé’s illustrations were a bit too generic, and didn’t do enough to capture the characters’ personalities.
Another big innovation over the originals that McCauley introduced is his use of color. Although Condé sometimes embellished his ink illustrations with watercolor, his work for the Hollow Tree series is purely black and white. For the color in the new illustrations, McCauley used Photoshop, aiming to evoke the look of ephemera from the Victorian era, which were often produced using lithographic printing techniques.
A chromolithograph Christmas card from the Victorian era.
The shift away from pen-and-ink in illustrations for children’s books tracks a broader thematic shift as well. Stories for children from the Victorian era often surprise modern readers with their darkness, surreality, and moral ambiguity. “I like the Victorian story,” says McCauley. “Compared to a lot of the other stuff that I’ve illustrated over the years it’s very weird. In a good way. It’s just strange. And for me [Mr. Dog] was an opportunity to make something that was charming but also had a bit of grit and darkness to it.”
Illustrators today have more tools at their disposal than ever before, but sometimes it’s an old-school, labor-intensive technique that best solves the problem at hand. There’s something timeless about pen and ink. Maybe that’s one reason Adam’s illustrations seem as if they’ve always accompanied this story. We couldn’t imagine Mr. Dog any other way.
Adam McCauley, 2014.
Why is Mr. Dog so gosh-durn charming? It’s a question we’ve been gnawing on for years now. We’ve decided it must have something to do with his sly, dashing personality. In that regard he has a number of legendary ancestors, and quite a rich lineage of descendants. From Reynard the Fox, whose fables entertained for generations during the early middle ages, to Tom Sawyer; to the Cheshire Cat; the loveable rogue is an enduring archetype found in great stories since time immemorial. Here for your nostalgic pleasure are seven excellent loveable rogues you may recall from childhood.
Remember The Wind in the Willows, with Toad and Mole and Badger? Their friend Ratty was actually not a rat, but a water vole, and he was obsessed with the river. Nothing made him happier than being out on the water, and if the other animals suggested another activity he could get very stubborn.
Ernest H. Shepard, © 1959
“I beg your pardon... but did I overhear you say something about ‘WE,’ and ‘START,’ and ‘THIS AFTERNOON?’”
Kids today know Roald Dahl’s classic trickster character from the Wes Anderson movie, where he’s voiced by George Clooney. But Fantastic Mr. Fox was first a book, in which Mr. Fox employs every ounce of imagination he has to feed his wife and children while three mean-hearted farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean do their best to shoot him and destroy his home.
Donald Chaffin © 1970
“This delicious meal…,” he began, then he stopped. In the silence that followed, he let fly a tremendous belch. There was more laughter and more clapping. “This delicious meal, my friends,” he went on, “is by courtesy of Messrs. Boggis, Bunce and Bean.”
Jinx the cat is from Walter Brooks’ wonderful series of books following the adventures of Freddy the Pig, a sincere and kind-hearted pig who often finds himself called upon to solve mysteries. Jinx is just the opposite. Quite like a real cat, he’s aloof and sarcastic. He rarely bothers with anything at all, unless he’s making a snide comment from the periphery.
Kurt Wiese © 1939
“‘To the eye of the trained detective nothing is ever just what it seems to be.’
‘What does that make you, then?’ said the cat."
OLIVIA THE PIG
Olivia is a very independent, gutsy young pig, dreamt up by the illustrator Ian Falconer, who is otherwise best known for his work on the cover of The New Yorker. Whether she is singing from her songbook, “Forty Very Loud Songs,” trying to recreate a Jackson Pollock on her bedroom wall, or playing with the family’s pet cat, she always does it with gusto and unselfconscious enthusiasm.
Ian Falconer © 2003
“Olivia waited, and waited, and waited, till she was too exhausted to wait any longer. So she went out to play with the cat.”
THE CAT IN THE HAT
Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, conceived the Cat in the Hat when his publisher commissioned a more entertaining alternative to the Dick and Jane books then popular as primers for early readers. Together with his companions, Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Cat in the Hat shows up at Sally and her brother’s house while their mother is away. Over the objections of the family fish, the trio proceed to entertain the children, incidentally wrecking much of the house.
Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) © 1957
“Have no fear,” said the cat. “I will not let you fall. I will hold you up high as I stand on a ball.”
Anatole is the brainchild of Eve Titus, brought to life in illustration by Paul Galdone. He is a very proud French mouse who overhears a nasty comment deriding his species, and decides he must do something to better his reputation. So every night he sneaks into the Duval Cheese Factory and samples all the cheeses, leaving little tasting notes and telling them how to better run their business.
Paul Galdone © 1956.
“Voila! Now the Duval Factory will learn a thing or two. Mice are known everywhere as the World’s Best Judges of Cheese! And as for myself, I shall bring some home proudly, for I have honorably earned it!”
Mr. Dog is the main character in Albert Bigelow Paine’s extraordinary stories about the animal people who live at the Hollow Tree Inn. Sometimes it seems like he might see the other animals as just tasty snacks—whenever he sees Mr. Squirrel, for example, he can’t resist instilling a little terror in his heart. But by the last story, Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn, Mr. Dog and the other animals are all fast friends.
Adam McCauley © 2014
"Then he borrowed a big sack and fixed it up to swing over his back, just as he had seen Santa Claus do in the pictures. He had a lot of nice things to take along. Three tender young chickens he'd borrowed from Mr. Man, for one thing…”
That’s all, folks! Did we miss your favorite loveable rogue? Tell us about it in the comments.
Halloween Greetings, dear readers!
I’m delighted to be back, kicking off our fourth year of festivities with Mr. Dog! It’s been a wonderful whirlwind since our thrilling Kickstarter launch back in 2014. Each new holiday season brings lots of inspiration, rekindling my dream of sharing this beloved Christmas story with an even wider audience.
We have some fun new things up our sleeves this year, including…
- recipes for craft cocktails and savory snacks worthy of a Hollow Tree celebration,
- an all-new read-aloud advent calendar (Do you have a furry friend or two in your home? We have a fun new idea and will invite your participation. Stay tuned for details!),
- our first-ever Gift Guide (everything one needs for a proper Hollow Tree Christmas),
- and more!
So stay tuned as the season commences. You can follow Mr. Dog on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter, too! (Tomorrow, October 31st, we’ll announce our once-annual Friends & Family discount, exclusively via our newsletter. Sign up today to receive the special code and take advantage of our best price of the year (runs through November 5, 2017).
Meanwhile, Mr. Dog and I wish you a treat-full Halloween!