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.
Hello and happy May, dear friends!
In honor of May Day, I wanted to share a lovely gift from a dear friend and fan of Mr. Dog. Artist Katie Daisy gave me this beautiful little book for my birthday earlier this year. I was charmed and surprised to learn of yet another book by Mr. Dog’s author, Albert Bigelow Paine: A Little Garden Calendar.
A Little Garden Calendar, by Albert Bigelow Paine, 1905
I promise, this is not another crazy April Fool’s joke. The incredibly prolific Paine published this gardening manual for children in 1905. In it, he expertly instructs young readers in the art of gardening and observation of the natural world. In his words, he
has tried to tell in simple language a few of the wonders of plant life, and to set down certain easy methods of observation, including planting, tending, and gathering the harvests, from month to month, throughout the year. Along with this it has been [my] aim to call attention to the more curious characteristics of certain plants—the really human instincts and habits of some, the family relations of others, the dependence of many upon mankind, animals, and insects, and the struggle for existence of all.
But to make this book even more remarkable, Paine presents this instruction in the form of a sweet fictional story that follows two young children, Davy and Prue, as they learn throughout the year with the help of their friend, “The Chief Gardener.” Again, in Paine’s words:
Simple botany plays a part in the little narrative, which forms a continuous story from chapter to chapter, interwoven with a number of briefer stories—traditions, fairy tales, and the like, all relating to plant life and origin. These are presented by way of entertainment—to illuminate fact with fancy—to follow, as it were, the path of knowledge through the garden of imagination.
The more I learn about old Albert, the more I love him. This seemed a lovely thing to share with you all on this first day of May. I hope you enjoy the photos below. You can read the book online, or even download a free copy for your iPad or Kindle from Gutenberg.org.
Wishing you a brilliant May!
Creative Director, That's So Enterprises
Greetings, dear Reader.
If you know me and my friends at the Hollow Tree, you know we enjoy a good prank now and then. Well, it appears my April 1 hoax did indeed fool quite a few folks and I hope you enjoyed it in the spirit of good April Fools’ fun!
Our publisher, Betsy, has an update and a real Albert Bigelow Paine story to share with you below. And I promise no more shenanigans... Well, at least not for a while!
Your foolish friend,
Although it’s simply not true that we discovered an unpublished Albert Bigelow Paine Hollow Tree story, we have been enjoying more of the tales in his three-volume series, all of which are available as free ebooks at Project Gutenberg. With Easter coming this weekend, I thought it would be fun to share “Mr. Rabbit Explains: An Easter Story” from The Hollow Tree and Deep Woods Book, in which Mr. Rabbit tells his friends just how the Easter “bunny” myth got started.
"THEY CAME TO A LOG UNDER A BIG TREE AND SAT DOWN FOR A SMOKE AND TALK" (image courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
I love the illustrations by J.M. Conde, who did the art for all three original volumes.
IT WAS A NICE BLUE EGG WHEN SHE GOT THROUGH WITH IT (image courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
For those of you planning dye eggs and enjoy a hunt this weekend, this tale could be a fun addition to the festivities. You can read and download the full story from Project Gutenberg here.
A FEW LESSONS IN RUNNING AND HIDING (image courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
In other news, I’m really happy to be able to confirm (no joke!) that Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn will soon be on press again. We know that many of you missed out last year, and many of you are interested in more copies for gifts this year, so we’re going to open up a pre-order page on this site just as soon as we get all our ducks in a row. I expect everything should be ready by the end of April. If you’re not on Mr. Dog’s newsletter list yet, please do sign up. Subscribers will be the very first to know when the books are available again.
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!