My children’s favorite Christmas story isn’t “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or even “The Night Before Christmas.” They’ll read them all; they’ll watch the Christmas specials.
But the story they want to hear on Christmas Eve is the story of Simon, the dog who ate Christmas. I’ve probably embellished it over the years. I was only about 10 when these events happened and family stories over time become distorted.
Every year, however, when the various animal rescue groups issue warnings about giving an animal as a gift, I can only smile in agreement.
In elementary school, we had a dog, Patches, who was a good dog with a few faults. He liked to chase cars. And, being unneutered, he liked to chase female dogs when they were in heat. He combined the two one summer and my father found him dead by the side of the highway; he brought him home and buried him in a grave that was then covered with rocks so the animals wouldn’t dig him up.
My father loved Patches, who would accompany him to the dump on weekends, head hanging out the window in bliss. Just before Christmas, my mother heard of a family that was giving away their dog. His name was Simon and he had many similarities to Patches — he was a mix, with a bit of boxer in him, with wild patches all over his fur — and enough differences to make him seem not so much a replacement dog. My brother and I were let in on the secret and we kept it to ourselves, happily.
A dog for Christmas! My father, so hard to shop for, would be thrilled.
We presented my father with Simon on the day before Christmas. It was a fantastic present. My father was incredibly surprised. And we set out that evening for a party at the neighbors, the Christmas dog shut in the basement, as Patches was when we left the house, with a bowl of water and a big rawhide bone.
Midway through the party, we heard screams outside. There was a strange dog menacing the neighbors’ daughters. It was barking, it was bloody, it was all very confusing, especially when we actually saw the creature.
It was Simon. How in the world did he manage to get out of the basement?
The cellar windows were tiny, set high in the cement walls near the ceiling. Simon had, incredibly, launched himself through a window by jumping on a table, cutting his paws and face on the glass.
“Poor dog,” we all said. “He just got lonely, his first night in a new house.”
And we all went to bed, the Christmas dog asleep on the rug in my parents’ room. All was quiet.
Until the thud on the roof. It wasn’t Santa and his sleigh. It wasn’t even Rudolph.
My cat, Ba-ba, was a highly intelligent animal. He figured out soon after we moved to that house in Bellingham that all he had to do to get into the house at night was to climb a tree, jump from a branch onto the roof and stroll leisurely to one of the dormer windows, where he would meow until someone let him in. It was an excellent system, and my father went to let him in without a thought.
Except for one thing: No one had bothered to inform Ba-ba that we had acquired a dog. And Simon had no idea that we had a cat.
We all woke that night to screams, barks, hisses! Ba-ba clamped himself on my father’s arm, pumped himself up to three times his normal size, and prepared to attack.
I should probably mention here that my beloved Ba-ba was a bit of a sociopath. He had decimated the small animal population for the entire neighborhood and his reaction to a strange dog — heck, any animal — was to attack rather than run. He and Patches had worked up an uneasy truce but Simon, we were rapidly discovering, was most certainly not Patches.
So my father spent part of Christmas Day in the ER with cat-scratch fever. But things were bound to get better. Simon just had to get used to us.
The problem was, we just couldn’t be home all the time. It was Christmas vacation, we had plans, and we just couldn’t trust Simon alone in the house. He had to go into the basement at these times, and it didn’t go well.
He escaped through the window again, but my father boarded it up and moved the table away. That just made the dog angrier. The next time we went out, we came home to find he had chewed through the cellar door.
I repeat: he chewed through the cellar door. Granted, it was a flimsy, hollow thing, but the door was chewed to splinters.
We got a new door. My father nailed tin to the bottom half. It was wintertime; we couldn’t just put Simon on a run outside.
My brother and I came home from school one day to an astonishing sight: Simon was loose in the kitchen.
Simon had made the most of the school day. When he couldn’t chew through the metal, when he couldn’t jump out a window, he chewed through the basement wall into the room my father had converted into an office. The dog chewed at the interior shutters, raked his claws down the wood of the kitchen door, gnawed furiously on the windowsills.
My father had had it with his Christmas present. My brother and I begged for one more chance, but my father spelled it out for us: Simon wasn’t happy. We could nail metal onto as many surfaces as we’d like, but he’d never get used to being closed up in our house; he’d always be looking for a way to get out.
So the Christmas dog returned to his former owners. They gave him away again; the family joke was that he was given to a carpenter.
It was years before we got another dog. The next one was also a rescue, a docile half Lab-half Setter whose owners decided to keep one of her puppies instead. We learned our lesson, however, and acquired Mikki in the fall; she could have plenty of time outside and little drama inside. I don’t remember Ba-ba’s reaction to her but they lived together more or less harmoniously until he died in his sleep at the foot of my bed at the age of 19.
And Simon faded into family legend. I don’t know if we even have a picture of him but his reminders remained, gouged into the walls of the kitchen. I can only wonder what the people who bought the house years later thought of it all — metal-lined cellar door, clawmarks in the kitchen?
We just wanted to give the dog a home. But instead, he just ate Christmas.