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Beacon Blog: Need a little Christmas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - Whatever defines the Christmas spirit, or whatever sentiment it is that activates that quality, has not exactly come roaring down the metaphorical chimney for me like a right jolly old elf in the last few years.

The absence of the Christmas spirit has not made me crabby about the season, and I am a not-at-all reluctant participant in the rituals of it. But the exquisite inexplicable joy of Christmas, the ineffable happiness of it, the sense that, for a moment anyway, all truly is calm and all really is bright--that precious enthusiasm and giving way to a childlike willingness to believe the unbelievable simply absented itself from my constitution.

Once, the joy of Christmas that was activated in a big way by the trumpeted entrance of the choir singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" at midnight at St. Michael's and St. George's and continued into the next morning with the stockings with the tangerines in the toes of them, eluded me. My guess is what ailed me then and may return any minute was that wretched, ever present and increasingly more audible racket of time's winged chariot, rather that the much preferred tinkling sound of a sleigh hitting the roof.

Whatever the cause, it banished the spirit from my little universe and left me feeling just a bit Scroogy. And feeling that way has made me sad, because for so many years, no matter how cool and unconventional I might try to pass myself off as being, visions of sugarplums could not be banished this time of year, and they danced around in a magical ballroom, crowding my imagination and my dreams, and made me very happy indeed.

This morning, when Christmas was the last thing on my conscious mind, I opened an email from a fellow called Sandy Peters, a friend of mine, who works for the Animal Protective Association on Hanley Road, an organization for which I have enormous respect and affection.

The email Sandy sent me had to do with something that had a certain miraculous resonance for me, an account of the relationship of a woman, Mary, and one of those big, silly, always-happy-to-see-you golden retriever-like dogs -- you know, the sort of animal that always seems to be thinking not about chasing a squirrel but about making you, his or her human friend, feel not simply loved but cherished in a distinctly canine way, a condition I'm convinced is quite beyond human understanding.

The story of Lucky, the dog, and Mary, his mistress, and her husband, Jim, starts happily enough, but presently takes a bad turn. It was the sort of scary turning that made me think of my old pal Ernie, who recently went under the knife because of prostate cancer; and about a former colleague who has been socked with a particularly virulent form of breast cancer; and about the late Elizabeth Edwards, who, bless her heart, set standards for toughness, warmth, intelligence and courage, all at once, qualities for all of us to emulate.

So as you may have guessed from all that, the dog's mistress turned up with cancer, breast cancer, and the diagnosis was alarming enough for her to hear time's winged chariot landing on the roof with a resounding crash. There was another problem. Although her husband liked Lucky well enough, there was not the sort of bond between him and the dog that connected Mary and Lucky so beneficially. In fact, if you want to know the truth, Lucky was an acquired taste. He was weird, a sort of pack-rat retriever, a hoarder of stuff that did not always belong to him. For example, when visitors came to stay for a few days with Jim and Mary, Lucky was known to swipe stuff from their suitcases, and take it to the basement, where whatever it was was added to his hoard.

Nevertheless, Mary was crazy about Lucky and was tormented by worry about what might happen to him, because she continued to believe she would die. And, indeed, her treatment was radical: a double mastectomy. When she returned from a long stay in the hospital, she was so tired she couldn't make it upstairs to her room, so she lay down on a sofa. She called to Lucky but for some reason he just stared, and wouldn't come to her, and that made her sad, but soon she drifted off to sleep.

Here I'll let the storyteller take up the narrative:

"When Mary woke for a second she couldn't understand what was wrong. She couldn't move her head and her body felt heavy and hot. But panic soon gave way to laughter when Mary realized the problem. She was covered, literally blanketed, with every treasure Lucky owned! While she had slept, the sorrowing dog had made trip after trip to the basement bringing his beloved mistress all his favorite things in life.

"He had covered her with his love."

Whatever emotional mechanism it is that engages the Christmas spirit caught me with a vengeance when I read that last sentence. It reminded me that, after all, Lucky's instinctive adoring action illustrates the essence of this rich and magnificent holiday coming up a week from Saturday. The golden core of it is giving -- giving not expensive presents but things that truly are precious, transformational, for both the giver and the recipient.

Giving such as this can be demonstrated by the slobbery gift of a dog named Lucky, or the birth of a baby who'd grow up to change the course of human history, or, dear reader, it can also be something as simple and unforgettable and beloved as a story radiating forth like a miracle from an email, a story forwarded to me through cyberspace by a generous and thoughtful friend.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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