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.
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.
It dawned on me recently: this month marks my 1st year anniversary as a publisher. It still feels strange to call myself that, though it’s undeniable that I have 1) produced a book, 2) sold that book, and now have even 3) reprinted that book with the intention of selling more of them. I’m pretty sure that’s what a publisher does. I may still be settling into my new title, but I'm truly happy and grateful to be here—headed into another Christmas season as Mr. Dog's publisher.
In January 2014, shortly after I began working on Mr. Dog, I joined a mastermind group with five other entrepreneurial women. At our first meeting, we made sticky note nametags, stating one big goal for the year.
When I embarked on this adventure with my family, I wanted above all else to produce a book that honored our generations-long love affair with Paine’s Christmas story. When I finally held our book in my hands, it was wildly gratifying to see something that had once been all in my head and my heart materialize in the form of a beautiful object. Honestly, that satisfaction could have been enough.
Eleven months later, in November 2014, I was overjoyed to stand in front of my group, don my nametag from our very first meeting, and show off that book. I published a book!
But of course, there was always something more that inspired me. It was the conviction that Paine’s story deserves a much wider audience. I’ve always believed that it’s a timeless tale and that there are probably a lot more folks out there who would not only enjoy it, but perhaps even embrace it as we have.
So when we sold through our first print run last year, I was overjoyed. And when I read the kind messages from so many of you, telling us how much you loved it, how your kids were asking you to read it over and over again, I felt home. It was as if my family had suddenly expanded. That, too, could have been a satisfying place to end the story. It would have been lovely to simply rest on those laurels—happy to have introduced Mr. Dog to 2000 more readers and to know that you were out there, enjoying the story with us.
But I believe there's power in our collective enthusiasm—for Paine’s classic tale, Adam’s glorious illustrations, the love of reading good stories to one another, the joy of family traditions and heirlooms passed from one generation to the next—power that can guide our book into the homes of many more like us and keep this wonderful story alive for decades to come. So here I am, at the threshold of another December, books back in stock, eager to see who joins our Hollow Tree tribe this year.
As we head into my favorite time of the year, I wanted to take a moment to thank you—for being part of our extended Mr. Dog Family, for cheering me on and, especially, for sharing your love of Mr. Dog's Christmas with your own family and friends.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
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.