A Dogs Key to the True Meaning of Christmas

I was walking Shirelle, my husky-mix, through the chilly neighborhood, taking in the holiday decorations. Some charming, but most of them atrocious, completely missing the true meaning of Christmas. Which of course is the virgin birth of the foretold messiah, along with carols and love, eggnog parties and trees with stars, which all together means what exactly?

“What do you think it means?” I asked the mutt.  

She ignored me, as usual, focusing on smells and potential sounds around the corners.  

“I mean, Hanukkah and Kwanza still make sense. But after all this time, and all we’ve done to it, there still seems to be some core meaning to Christmas that we all yearn for, regardless of religious beliefs. We see it in kids sometimes, but what exactly is it?”

She suddenly lunged against the leash, almost pulling me over, and started barking to raise the saints. A man across the street was walking his Maltese, and Shirelle was giving her usual zealous reaction to a foe she could devour without chewing.

“What’s your problem, Shirelle?” I groused. “It’s not such a big deal.”

But she disagreed. Completely, which got me thinking. For me, that little dog was no big deal. But to Shirelle, for some unknowable reason, it’s stop-the-presses cataclysmic.  Could she be answering my question about the yuletide?

Think about it. A few years ago, astronomers came across likely evidence that, a couple thousand years before, Jupiter and Venus appeared so close together in our skies that they looked like a giant star – an occurrence that might well have been the Star of Bethlehem.

And today, if a young woman were admitted to a hospital with a pregnancy, with proof she’d never been inseminated, the medical profession would consider it an anomaly, a case for study, and it would most certainly end up a plot point on a few nighttime medical dramas.  

But the Star in the East and the Virgin Birth were and are considered miracles, because the people at that time saw them as such. The shepherds and wise men saw those planets and determined they’d seen a miracle expressing new hope. A sign of the most important event in history.

Just like Shirelle, ecstatic at the idea of a new tail to sniff, pulling on me as if it were, well, the most important event in history.

Isn’t that miracle of hope the constant of the holiday? The pre-Christian winter solstice rituals celebrated the idea that winter wasn’t the end; that, in cold darkness, faith promises the coming of spring. Even our modern traditions of gift-giving, mall Santas, and saturated advertising all suggest that there’s something amazing just around the corner so you better not pout, and you better not cry!

Here’s this knucklehead dog by my side, who lives in that mindset all the time, always checking for what miracle, what new hope, is ahead. While we, jaded and overwhelmed, wish we could feel that too. Could a pooch teach us something about how to achieve it?

The answer is yes, but verbally-challenged tailwaggers don’t present lectures. Rather, like Bing Crosby reforming the sinners and fuddy-duddies in Going My Way, a pup achieves this through example, by simply being herself. (Though admittedly, Crosby also had the ability to sing that “Would you rather be a mule” song.  But we’ll have to make do with what the mutt can offer here.)

Canine Miracle Awareness isn’t instant; it takes steps. Maybe it’s best to think of it as an Advent calendar, but one with just four windows. Once you’ve mastered what’s in one, you get to move to the next.

The first opens to reveal the world around you. Compared to dogs, we got gypped in the sense-of-smell department. When we walk outdoors, we’re likely to be hit by only one or two smells, not the four-star menu a pooch sniffs. But we have eyes to put theirs to shame. So the next time you’re on a busy city sidewalk, take a moment and look around.  After all, any pup can tell you – there’s a miracle on every street, not just 34th.    

And as you do, like those ancient stargazers, note what most affects you. Perhaps you’ll be struck by the sight of a beautiful woman in a lovely outfit, a rare car, or a great window advertising a sale.

But then let your brain run – aren’t all windows miraculous? Who came up with the idea of how to make glass, and how did they do that? Isn’t every car amazing, with the technological precision it takes to run an engine? And isn’t every person a miracle? Their lives, their minds, their struggles, their achievements?

In truth, every new thing you see out there is astounding, if you let yourself realize it. Each is a beautiful gift, from…well, if you choose to believe so…from Santa Claus.

Crack open the next window, and you’ll see things that you don’t like at all. Or at least, so you think.  

Because dogs’ smaller brains keep them living in the moment, they are far less ruled by preconceptions than are we. We plan for a picnic and state the day was ruined by rain. A dog plans to go outdoors, is surprised by precipitation, and then relishes the new smells the moisture creates.  

So many of our favorite modern Christmas songs tell of this. Rudolph’s nose causes him nothing but shame, till it’s valued for the miracle it is. Snow and cold cause colorless misery, until one appreciates the winter wonderland and Jack Frost nipping at your nose.  And, the most popular of all, tells of Irving Berlin’s melancholy at spending December 24th in warm colorful Beverly Hills instead of trapped in a frozen blanket like the ones he used to know. 

Instead of sitting back and waiting for a miracle to come in the way you want, why not sniff around and discover the ones resplendent in all your annoyances and disappointments.

When you’ve graduated from windows one and two, you can bend open the next panel, to approach a dogs’ true state of grace: seeing miracles in the everyday. Like Jimmy Stewart realizing how much he loves his plain home town and dysfunctional family and friends, or Scrooge breaking past his inner pain and embracing the people he’s feared and despised, you now can live surrounded by awe and majesty – right where you are.

Once you’ve tasted that, you have the right to break open the final portal, which will simply show your heart – which now explodes puppylike at every reunion with your family and friends, with the unbridled Home Alone ecstasy that what was lost has returned, what was gone forever is back, a thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.

What do you think? Do you want to go Shirelle’s way, living life fully in joy at the miracles around her? Or would you rather be say...a Grinch?

You see, you could be swingin’ on a star. Even if you’re on a leash.

Douglas Green is a psychotherapist, specializing in helping kids and teens build lives they can be proud of. He is also the creator and writer for AskShirelle.com, which helps kids, teens, parents, and others around the world with advice from the point of view of a friendly dog, and is the author of The Teachings of Shirelle – Life Lessons from a Divine Knucklehead. Learn more about Green at www.CavalleriaPress.com, and connect on Facebook and Twitter.

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