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.
Jason, about age 5, mugging at the Christmas tree farm.
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.
Betsy and Jason on Christmas morning, 1972
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.
Long before The Slanket, we enjoyed these sleeping bag-like robes, decked with B.Kliban's iconic sneaker-wearing cat—very convenient for staying even warmer near the fire, but not as enduring as Mr. Dog's Christmas, or all the wonderful memories of Christmases past.
Happy New Year! We hope this finds you enjoying the first days of 2015, with memories of Christmas lingering pleasantly.
Our heads are still spinning from the whirlwind of October, November and December, when our books finally arrived and we were able to share the beautiful result of so many months of hard work. We thought you might enjoy these “out-takes.”
They may not be the most professional photos... but they definitely capture the joyful, independent, bootstrapped nature of our family endeavor!
October 18th: Betsy tentatively opens the advance copy, just received from the printer. A scary and thrilling moment!
October 27th: Jim gets his first look at the book. Overcome with pride. Martini at the ready!
November 3rd: The shipment arrives in San Francisco. And goes straight into our warehouse... um... garage.
(Wish we had photos of Chuck and Betsy—about a month later—hurriedly toting about 40 of those boxes
upstairs into the flat, to save them from potential flash flooding predicted due to #stormageddon 2014!)
Throughout November: Friends pitch in and we at last begin fulfilling orders to our dear Kickstarter backers!
Throughout December: We're excited to see Mr. Dog popping up at some of our favorite stores
in San Francisco and Mendocino. He's such a looker!
December 18th: A spectacular article appears in the San Francisco Chronicle and sales of the book go bonkers. Betsy’s parents drive from Mendocino in the middle of the night, in torrential rain, to help with packaging orders. We’re sold out within 48 hours.
December 18th-21st: Our Mission District flat becomes a full-fledged fulfillment center.
And we get to use some really big carts at the post office.
December 21st: And finally, Mr. Dog and family enjoy a much deserved toast and dinner out on the town.
Cheers to all of you who brought Mr. Dog into your homes in 2014! Thanks for helping to make our first year such an exciting and rewarding adventure. We're so happy to be sharing this story with you and hope you'll continue to share your photos and impressions of the book with us.
All the best to you and yours in 2015!
Greetings, Dear Reader!
I'm delighted to share a very special post with you in this week before Christmas, and in celebration of our very successful first year. Our publisher, Betsy Cordes, interviews someone with an important connection to our book's author, Albert Bigelow Paine.
Enjoy, and may you have a very Merry Christmas!
This project has had lots of really happy surprises for me, but one of the biggest has been the opportunity to connect with Stephen Bigelow Cushman, the great-grandson of Albert Bigelow Paine (author of Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn). Stephen Cushman is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, specializing in American poetry.
Early last month, after a bit of getting to know one another via email, we met face-to-face on Skype and it was my great pleasure to hear Stephen’s memories of his great grandfather’s stories, to discover shared Christmas traditions (turns out “Mr. Dog” isn’t the only old Christmas story both our families enjoy!), and more.
I’m so grateful to Stephen for his warm reception of our project, and for the stories and perspectives he shared in our conversation—part of which I now get to share with you here.
Stephen Bigelow Cushman holding his first editions of the “Hollow Tree and Deep Woods” tales: three volumes of stories written by his great-grandfather, Albert Bigelow Paine.
BETSY (San Francisco, California): I’m really grateful to you for doing this. I think that this connection with you is really one of the most rewarding things about this project.
STEPHEN (Charlottesville, Virginia): I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to go back to all these books. I was just sitting here re-reading my 1898 first edition. Paine was my great-grandfather, and the “little ladies” he told the story to, well, he seems to have written a book for each of his daughters. The third one, the youngest, was my father’s mother. Her name’s Joy. [Stephen holds up photo; shown below] See what you’re looking at?
Mark Twain playing cards with Stephen Cushman’s grandmother, Joy (far right), her sister Louise (second from right), and their friend in Redding, Connecticut. (Image from twainquotes.com)
BETSY: It’s Mark Twain?
STEPHEN: Mark Twain, with three little girls. And the littlest girl farthest from him is my father’s mother. And the one next to her is Louise. And she is the little lady to whom Paine told “Mr. Dog’s Christmas.”
BETSY: That’s wonderful.
STEPHEN: So that picture was taken in Redding [Connecticut] in 1908. And I don’t know if you know the story of how Twain and Paine were connected.
BETSY: I know that Paine was Twain’s biographer.
STEPHEN: Biographer, and executor. And editor. Some people say not a very good one. And Paine was the one who got Twain to come out to Redding, which seems to be the setting for the Hollow Tree. Certainly, those are New England winters you’re reading about.
BETSY: From your first email to me, it sounds like the reading of this story has been a tradition in your family forever.
STEPHEN: Yes. I was born in 1956 and I cannot remember a time when my father didn’t read these books to us all, all year, because there are three volumes and there’s the summer too and everything. Some terrifying characters in there: “Mr. Turtle’s Thunder Story,” “Old Man Moccasin,” and a lot of others as well. Oh, these all come back: “Mr. Turtle’s Flying Adventure.” Mr. Possum’s Sick Spell.” There are so many good ones here. And then, here’s the final one: “The Hollow Tree Snowed Inn” book. And I remember this one! Yes: “The Bark of Old Hungry Wolf.” That’s a story about them all being hungry in the winter.
But, certainly “The Hollow Tree Christmas” was a ritual. And I was just thinking before you called of all the things that we grew up saying from the story. For example, it could be the middle of July and sweltering outside, but if something good happens to somebody you might say, “Oh, there’s something in all our stockings!” So it’s very much part of the lore. We did that throughout my childhood. And then: I got married to Sandra in 1982, and our first son was born in 1987. His name is Samuel. Then the second son is Simon. And we always read them to them as well. So I guess if you count my father, we’re on generation three.
But these stories have some sadness in them, some grimness in them. Because this is a pre-internet, pre-television, pre-radio world where storytelling was a major way to pass cold, snowy New England evenings. And there is in these books loneliness and solitude and some hard things. Which I didn’t think about it that way as a child so much, but now that I look at them again, I see it.
BETSY: It will be interesting now for me to go and read some of those because I’m not as familiar with them, and I think that the Christmas story is really pretty lighthearted.
STEPHEN: Yes, although, what’s interesting—I recently re-read it—there’s really a great dramatization in the Christmas story about Mr. Dog thinking at first, “what a great joke this will be.” But then thinking, “how sad this would be to play a joke on them.” So he’s going to play the role. He really becomes sort-of this artist-author figure who’s going to create this illusion for the sake of his friends. What a shame to let them down. So then, even there, it seems to me there’s some pathos in that, too.
BETSY: The thing that I particularly love about it is that it’s very much about friends and family, and all of the best things. But there’s also that total late-night stress miracle when he’s getting things together. And, how hard it is for him, how hard he works to pull off this surprise for his friends. I absolutely love that part about it.
STEPHEN: You know, there are two sides to it. While we’re having a great time there are a lot of people who are not, for any number of reasons. And so I feel that one of the things that story’s about is Paine’s projection onto Mr. Dog of this desire to share the pleasures with people who might otherwise not have them. And I think it’s very moving in that way.
BETSY: What do you think about the story being republished now?
STEPHEN: Oh, I think it’s wonderful. You know, to have a book go out of print is a very sad thing. It’s not quite like a death, but it’s a little bit odd. And, so, to have a book that I love come back into the world, I only have good feelings about it. What I’m going to be interested in is if your project brings out of the woodwork people who have been leading lives parallel to ours, who have been reading these things all along and so on, as well as making new readers out of young people and other people.
BETSY: There has been at least one person that my parents discovered quite by accident that grew up reading the “Hollow Tree” stories.
STEPHEN: Oh, no way!
BETSY: Yes, and she’s ordered copies for two friends and had them inscribed because both of these people grew up with the Hollow Tree stories as well. The thing I love about the Christmas story is it’s just so timeless. It definitely has a lot of period stuff in it, and there are some funky things, like my dad, when he reads it, always likes to pause at the point where they say they’ll leave the latchstring out for Mr. Dog. And my dad always makes a sort-of hokey point of, “Now, do you know what a latchstring is?”
STEPHEN: Right! Well, one of the things we haven’t talked about yet is the timelessness of the Christmas story, yes, but the timelessness of beast fables in general—from Aesop’s on. I think that animal stories become even more resonant against the backdrop of environmental degradation and all kinds of things. I mean, to “the little lady”—my grandmother, or her sisters in the late-19th,early 20th century—these weren’t animals, these were people. They had latchstrings, and they had deep snows, and they were snowed in for a week, these things. Well, that never happens to anyone anymore. So there’s a kind of remoteness, a nostalgia for a time when life was a little different, life was a little closer to the animals and to the rhythms of the seasons. And, I think that aspect is always going to reach out. Read today the story might appeal to a deep longing for a non-urban, pre-modern pastoral world. And, I think you’re always going to get that being attractive to people especially at Christmas, when we’re fighting against so many other distracting forces: Shopping, doing your taxes, whatever, you know, all these terrible things! And you have this chance to be transported back. It’s wonderful!
BETSY: I’m curious, too, since you’re so familiar with all of the other stories, how often does Mr. Dog feature in all of them?
STEPHEN: Lots of Mr. Dog: “Mr. Dog Takes Lessons in Dancing,” “Jack Rabbit Plays One More Joke on Mr. Dog,” “Mr. Polecat Makes a Morning Call & Mr. Dog Drops In.” And then, there’s one about, “How Mr. Dog Got Even.” So Mr. Dog comes up a lot. And the reason is—and I was thinking about this before you called too—he’s the intermediary between the human world and the world of the forest. So, we need him as a kind of go-between. And there’s this sentence in the Hollow Tree Christmas: “Well, the Hollow Tree People had never heard of Santa Claus. They knew about Christmas, of course, because everybody, even the cows and sheep, knew about that.”
BETSY: I love that.
STEPHEN: “They had never heard of Santa Claus.” Well, that’s the only faint acknowledgment of the Christ story. You know: There’s the manger, and there are the animals. Otherwise, it’s a thoroughly secular Christmas. And it’s a kind of wonderful touch there, where on some level, all the animals knew about Christmas. But they didn’t know about this particular human version of Christmas. It’s gotta be the cattle are lowing or the shepherds are out with their sheep, their flocks abiding by night, and so on.
BETSY: I just remember, when I was in junior high and high school that sometimes on Christmas Eve, a bunch of my friends would come over to listen to this. And it was such a child-like thing that you would think that a jaded teenager would go, “What the hell is going on here?” But they were all, to the last one, every single time, every one of them no matter who it was, totally charmed by this story, and just completely present and really, really loved it.
STEPHEN: Well, it’s an interesting thing you say right there. In the full bloom of the Christmas readings when my sister and I were adults (if that was the right word), we would do, “The Hollow Tree Christmas.” But, we had other readings, too.
BETSY: Yeah? Tell me!
STEPHEN: Well, one of them—if you don’t know this, this would be a great thing for your family, in two forms—do you know Dylan Thomas’s, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales?”
BETSY: That’s another favorite. Absolutely.
STEPHEN: Ok. So, have you ever heard him read it?
BETSY: Yeah, so that’s another one of our traditions. On Christmas Eve, it’s the reading of Mr. Dog. And on Christmas morning, we have an album of Dylan Thomas reading, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and that is on every Christmas morning.
STEPHEN: Well, this is scary, because this sounds as though we probably were cloned in the same… [laughs]
BETSY: That is so weird! [laughing]
STEPHEN: …and the other ones that we do: My dad had an ancient record I think he bought when he was in the army, a ’33 rpm. But on one side was Ronald Coleman reading an abridgment of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens. And on the flip side, was Charles Laughton dramatizing an abridged version of “Pickwick Papers,” for Christmas. So that was our our trilogy: that record, the Thomas recording, and then our reading of, “The Hollow Tree.”
BETSY: Wow. We need to somehow get our hands on that third one. That sounds pretty special.
STEPHEN: Are you ready for the holidays?
BETSY: I am going to be so ready for the holidays!
STEPHEN: Well, I will tell you that here on the East Coast, the sun is going down, and I have a Mr. Dog I have to take out.
BETSY: I bet you do! Thank you so much for your time. I will send your books soon, and I look forward to staying in touch. And thank you so much for your warm reception of this project. It really means a lot to me.
STEPHEN: Well, thank you so much for the project, and seeing it through. And I wish everyone in your family a very happy Christmas.
Greetings, dear Reader!
This week I welcome back Henry Cordes, who has his own memories to share about growing up in a "Mr. Dog Family," and some nice thoughts about keeping stories and traditions alive.
My family has quite a few Christmas traditions. There’s the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding we have for Christmas dinner, and the figgy pudding my grandma makes. She douses it in liquor and lights it on fire; it’s very exciting. Many families leave out cookies for Santa, but we always left out a little cognac as well. And then of course there’s Mister Dog, the tradition we will soon share with you.
Little Henry, big tree. How the Little Fellows do slip away from us!
On Christmas Eve as a little kid, I’d sit with my family by the fire in my red and green striped pajamas while the adults sipped their drinks and talked and admired the tree. And at some point my grandpa would shuffle over to the bookcase and take down a very old, battered volume and say, “I think it’s time for Mr. Dog, don’t you?”
Mr. Dog's Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn first appeared in this 1898 volume of stories by Paine
Albert Bigelow Paine’s “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” is but one in a series of story collections he wrote over two decades about Mr. Dog and the other Hollow Tree folks. Researching Paine in order to write a short bio about him for our book, I learned that he wrote these stories for his three daughters, and that “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” was to be the last story in his beloved series. But even as his older daughter grew up and began to lose interest, his younger daughters kept demanding new stories. After publishing “Mr. Dog,” Paine and his illustrator J.M. Condé went on to create two more books. As Paine wrote in the preface to the very last in the series:
Until we started this project I’d assumed I was probably one of the last of the little people who would ever come along. Paine put Mr. Dog down on the page over a century ago, and in the natural course of things even the best loved relics fade from memory. What makes this project so exciting for me is stepping back, like Paine and Condé, to breathe new life into some well-loved characters. It is my sincere hope that our republication, and Adam’s wonderful new illustrations, will bring this gem into the hearts and memories of many more Little People, and that Mr. Dog may become your Christmas tradition too.
Greetings, dear Reader!
My guests this week are Henry Cordes and his grandfather, James “Doompa” Luther. Henry interviews his grandpa on the topic of Christmases Past.
HC: Hey, Doompa! I’d love to know more about how “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” became a tradition in our family. Do you remember who gave the book to your family in the first place? And who first read it to you?
JL: I think the book came from my mother's family, but no one still alive seems to remember. It must have first been read to me when I was about 5, when we lived in Sierra Madre, California. I say that because in my imagination the porch of the Hollow Tree Inn has always been the porch of that great old house we lived in then. The upstairs hallway there, with the bedroom doors opening out onto it on one side and a banister on the other, was always where I imagined the three Hollow Tree regulars poking their heads out to see if there was anything in their stockings.
Henry’s grandpa, wee Jim Luther (right) with his big brother, Jack. This must have been taken right around his very first Christmas.
HC: You moved to Berkeley not long after that, right?
JL: Yes, in 1942 we moved to a place in Berkeley on San Mateo Road. It was a two-story place, too. We had plenty of Christmases there. I remember my Dad setting up a spindly WWII era tree and testing the lights. Getting ready. I think this was the place and the time and the age when the expectation of Christmas really started to take hold in me and grow each year. After that was an even bigger place, with four stories if you include the big basement with its monster, octopus armed furnace and the huge attic, on Indian Rock Avenue, Berkeley. Wartime Christmases with uncles in uniform and other family and others passing through heading off to somewhere out there or going east, maybe home, afterwards. Newspapers with big headlines. Fireplace, big stairway, adults kind and friendly to us kids and our dog, Sandy. Everybody drinking something in front of the lit-up tree and warm fire. Phonograph going. My brother, Jack and I getting to stay up late a lot. Sometime in there we moved to a house on Shattuck Avenue, around the corner from Oxford Elementary School, where Jack and I went together for a couple of years. I know we enjoyed our Christmases there and at school—giant Christmas tree in the hall with all us little kids around it singing carols.
Jim (lower right, about age 6) with brother Jack and their parents—Henry's great grandparents—John and Betty, at home on Indian Rock Avenue in Berkeley, CA.
HC: Tell me more about your dog, Sandy.
JL: Sandy is what I remember most about our places on Indian Rock Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. He was our ready-for-anything Samoyed, who was constantly breaking out of our backyard and coming over to the schoolyard to look for Jack and me and cause havoc; he never hurt anybody, just wanted to play, herding big crowds of squealing, laughing kids back and forth across the playground. More than once, I was allowed (told) to leave school for long enough to get him home.
HC: What was Christmas like after you left Berkeley and moved to the country?
JL: In 1946 when I was 9, we moved to a two-story house near Fair Oaks, in Sacramento County. It was colder there in the wintertime than it had been in Berkeley. The house had a fireplace that we used a lot, and we had good Christmases there; one year I got a brand new Monarch bicycle, straight out of the pictures in the magazine ads. Then in 1951 we moved to suburbia: Arden Park, halfway between Fair Oaks and Sacramento. We lived in a small but comfortable, modern, one-story ranch style house on Las Pasas Way. Fireplace and plenty of room in front of the picture window for the tree, carols going on the Magnavox, but no upstairs to look down from. Christmases were still fun, but some of the childhood wonderment was fading a little. By age 14, I felt an obligation to be awkwardly cool. Fortunately, my little sister Joan was in just the right age-range, and that kept the Christmas innocence going for us.
Cultivating his cool. Jim, age 11.
HC: When did you start reading “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” to my mom? Was that when you lived in Ukiah? What was Christmas like in those years?
JL: Your mother was 9 when we moved West Standley Street in Ukiah. And of course she and your uncle Jay had lived in a couple of places in Sacramento County, and up on Fircrest Drive for two years when we first moved to Ukiah. And there were Christmases with plenty of Mr. Dog at those places, too. But it was the Standley Street house where she spent the most time as a child and as a teenager. The fireplace there got good use because the only other heat was from electric wall heaters, which we tried to avoid using because they were so expensive to operate. Your mother can tell you about staying huddled a few feet from the fire, wrapped up in a sleeping bag because it was so damn cold everywhere else in the house! There was almost always a cat and one or two dogs. I think that Christmases were wonderful for all of us there, I know they were especially fine for me: lots of tree-lights and well-used old familiar ornaments, bringing back the Christmas memories as we got them out anew each year. Smelling the Christmas Tree smells, listening to the same familiar records of carols and Dylan Thomas’s reading of “A Child's Christmas in Wales” each year. Presents, all kinds of toys and games, and lots of wonderful things to drink and eat, especially your grandmother's famous Christmas roast beast and Yorkshire Pudding. And always Mr. Dog by the fire on Christmas Eve.
HC: Much like Christmas has always been for me. So you’ve been the official Mr. Dog reader for a long time now!
JL: I guess I have! I started reading it to your mother and then your Uncle Jason when they were small, before we moved to Ukiah. Except possibly for one year (with reminders sometimes from Mrs. Dog) I've continued to read it all these years. And my audience has grown, of course, to include your dad and your Aunt Jean, then you and your cousins, Joon and Jory—and often guests who stop in for a Christmas Eve visit. One Christmas I even read it twice: your mother was in New York and insisted on a private reading over the phone.
1993: Henry’s first Christmas, with his Doompa in the house on West Standley Street, Ukiah, California.
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