Christmas Comes to the Mountain
It is true that all of our animals have Christmas stockings. They are lined up on the stairway with my children’s, husband’s, and my own, because we consider our pets part of the family. I still remember the expression of shocked disbelief I received from my ranching friend, Gail, when I mentioned it during a casual conversation about our holiday preparations. Ranchers have a working relationship with their animals, and view even dogs more as hired hands than as pets worthy of any pampering.
By contrast, our pets have always looked forward to the holiday season with relish, knowing it won’t be long before stockings loaded with special treats will be theirs to enjoy. This was particularly true of Kobi, our mixed breed German Shepherd/Malamute. He knew that after Thanksgiving it was our tradition to search for the perfect Christmas tree from horseback, and therefore, took advantage of the opportunity to prance in the snow while hunting for unwary gophers. However, on his first Christmas with us he was rather baffled when we brought a tree inside the house, and he sniffed it suspiciously. I felt compelled to warn him sternly it was not his private privy, and any intentions he had should be left outside where they properly belonged. He seemed to comprehend me, for he never molested the tree, and appeared content to sit and ponder over it as we began the decorating ritual.
Since this was his initiation into our tradition, I made a special effort to show him each ornament as we hung it on the tree. As always, I explained the stories behind them, hoping that in time my daughters would have them committed to memory. Kobi listened intently while I recited their individual histories reflecting the places we have lived, the birth of each child, the friends we have known, and the adventures we have shared. First came the shiny ceramic dog named Snoopy from the “Peanuts” comic strip, with a candy cane in his paws, given to me by Kathy Ericson in the third grade. It’s the only ornament I ever received as a child, and I cherished the sentiment behind it, though it had to wait many years before it appeared on a tree. Mother was very strict about Christmas décor; everything had to match, so our handmade or gifted ornaments never did pass muster. After I was grown, Snoopy always had a place on my tree. Next came the glass candy my husband gave me when we first married. Like so many couples starting out, money was tight, but Bill thought it important we have an ornament that was uniquely ours that first Christmas together. Kobi licked his chops when I showed it to him. Sorry boy, it isn’t edible. Oh, but here’s one he can identify with, my personal favorite, a hand-blown glass figurine of two Dalmatian puppies. I bought it because it reminded me of the Halloween when both my girls, still very young, dressed as Dalmatians. The image of those smiling little faces will never leave my memory.
But not all the memories evoked are happy ones, and Kobi must have sensed this one was different as we hung our September 11th military ornament on the tree. I did so in solemn gratitude that Bill, a United States Air Force officer at the time, survived the attack on the Pentagon that day, when so many others did not or would not in the years to follow. Kobi sat at attention like a sentry dog. Could he know what it meant to us?
The decorating continued with a quaint little covered wagon ornament I acquired before the great trek to Montana and the new home and new life it promised for us. That’s where Kobi came in, a lost waif we had adopted from the local Humane Society. Since it was his first Christmas with us, I made an ornament for him, as I have for all the dogs and horses who’ve shared their lives with us, and will for those yet to come.
With the work on the tree now done, Bill stopped groaning, the girls enjoyed their sweet rewards, and I was relieved to be tying the last stocking to the stairway bannister. Kobi eyed this one with its satin red ribbon. He sat in front of it all evening, wistfully gazing and dreaming of its contents. He knew this one was his, and in it were very special gifts. When it was time for bed, I had to remind him to settle in for the night. Reluctantly, he abandoned his vigil, but when morning came, surprisingly, I did not find him by his stocking, but instead, asleep under the tree, near the ornament with his photograph in it. Yes, I think he really did understand the spirit of Christmas.
That was nearly a decade ago, and now a new Christmas season is upon us. As always, opening up the decoration box is like visiting with old friends once more. As my girls excitedly unwrap each ornament in turn, it kindles the memories of horse shows, of travel, of loved ones far away, the good times, and the bad. We repeat each tale together, ensuring the next generation will remember and cherish their heritage, and the absent friends, both man and beast, who make the memories worthwhile.
Author bio: Nancy Quinn is an internationally known wildlife artist whose work is noted for its detail and accuracy. She is the recipient of two World Wildlife Art Championship awards and the subject of numerous articles about animal art. She now happily resides on a mountainside in Montana with her husband, daughters, dogs, and horses, where she continues to paint and write about her experiences living in the wild.