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!
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!
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!