Monday 20 December 2021

The Dog at the Manger


by Fr. Richard Libby

            The alarm clock went off at 6:00 am, and I got up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. I looked at the time and date on my watch, and I smiled, because the date was December 25: Christmas Day.

              I put the coffee on and looked down at Max, my German shepherd, who was still asleep on his bed. I went into the living room and started turning on the Christmas lights. I had a nine-foot tree, some garlands, and a Nativity Scene. I looked out the window at a dark sky broken by a rose-colored glow at the horizon, and I thought about all my plans for the day: Mass at 10:00 am, then lunch at my parents' house, and then a big family gathering at my Aunt Judy's house. It was going to be a great Christmas.

            I went back to the kitchen and got out the dog food to put out for Max, so that he could eat as soon as he got up. As I pulled it off the shelf, I heard a voice say, "Dandy Dog again?"  I turned around, and Max, still lying on his bed in the corner, had his head raised and was looking at me. He spoke, "You're feeding me Dandy Dog again? You give me Dandy Dog every morning. Come on, man, it's Christmas! How about bacon and eggs?"

            I stared in disbelief and didn't know how to answer. Max got up, went over to the other corner, picked up his leash with his mouth, and brought it to me. "Come on, let's take a walk."  I continued to stare. "Come on, let's go! It'll be a nice morning, so let's get out and enjoy it a bit. Put some coffee in your thermal mug and let's get going!"

            I finally managed to say, "Well . . . let me get my coat and my gloves."

            "You won't need them. Your blue jacket will do."

            "How do you know that?"

            "Listen," he said. "It's sixty-one degrees, clear skies, and there’s a light breeze from the north."  We listened again. "Today's high will be sixty-eight, and it will be partly cloudy this afternoon."

            "How do you know that?"

            "Didn't you hear that dog barking? That's Duke. He lives with Bill McKean, the meteorologist, about two blocks from here, and he gives us a weather report every morning. Now, come on, I want to go for a walk."

            I got dressed, and we left. As soon as we got to the corner, Max said, "Take me up the hill to Krippe Park. We'll get a nice view of the sunrise there." 

            We heard some coyotes, but Max barked a few times, and they got quiet. He looked at me and said, "I guess I told them."

            "What did you say?"

            "I said, 'Stay on your side of the ravine, if you know what's good for you!'"

            "You talk to coyotes?"

"Sure, why not?"

            "Aren't you afraid of them?"

            "Coyotes? Heck, no, they're cowards! Last week, I chased a whole pack of them out of your yard. I'm not scared of much. My father was a police dog, and he taught us well." 

              We passed a house that had a chain link fence around it. From behind the fence, a Scottish Terrier barked a couple of times, and Max barked back. Then he said to me, "You see?"

            "What was that about?"

            "That was Maggie. She said, 'You tell 'em, Max!'  And I said, 'I always do!'"

            "Do you talk to other animals, too, or just to dogs?"

            "Oh, sure! I talk to all kinds of animals."

            Up ahead was an oak tree, and a mockingbird in it was singing loudly, as mockingbirds will do. I said, "Do you know that mockingbird?"

            "Of course, I do. That's Steve."  We passed by, and Max barked once. After we passed, he looked at me and chuckled. "He's great!"

            "What do you mean?"

            "He's doing an impression of a blue jay that lives on Michigan Avenue. He's got him down! He doesn't do only the voice, but he's got the facial expressions, the mannerisms, everything!"

            "OK. I'm not sure I could tell."

            "No, I don't suppose you could. Come on, we're almost there."

            A car drove past, and the man in the driver's seat was wearing a Santa Claus suit, complete with cap and beard. His window was down, so he waved and said, "Merry Christmas!"  I returned his greeting. We got to Krippe Park; I sat down on a bench, and Max sat on the ground next to me. We looked out over the bay, and Max said, "This is going to be a beautiful sunrise!"

            "OK, I have a question for you, Max. Since when can you talk?"

            "Since today. It's Christmas."

            "Yes . . .?"

"Haven't you heard the old legend that the animals can speak at midnight on Christmas?"

            "It sounds familiar."

            "Well, it's true. There were animals present when Jesus was born, and God gave them human voices so that they could sing His praises. Ever since then, every year, at exactly midnight on Christmas, animals can speak in human voices for one hour."

            "But that's just a legend. Animals can't talk."

            "Oh, OK. Thanks for telling me." 

"All right, Max, but it isn't midnight. It's 6:30 in the morning."

            "I know. I got a deferral."

            "A deferral?"

            "Yes, I had to apply for a deferral. I didn't speak at midnight. I got to wait until now, and I only get an hour."

            "How do you apply for a deferral?"

            "Well, I had to go through Rolf, our neighborhood captain. He lives on Elm Street. Then he had to approve it and submit it to Toby, who is the district chief. It gets pretty complicated after that. But never mind all that; the point is, I wanted a deferral and I got one."


            "I got it because I wanted to talk to you. I'm concerned. You've lost your sense of wonder about Christmas."

            "How can you say that, Max? You've seen how I decorate the house?"

"Yes, I have, and it's very nice, but Christmas is more than decorations."

            "What about all the presents I got for my nieces and nephews?"

            "It's nice of you, but why did you do it? Did you do it out of a sense of obligation, or did you do it out of love?"

            "Well, I've attended every Christmas party so far this year, and I'm always listening to Christmas music . . . "

            "That's fine, but for what? It makes for a fun and busy time, but isn't Christmas more than that?"

            "I really don't know what you mean."

            "Do you remember Christmas when you were a child? Do you remember that there was an almost mystical element about it? It's no one thing, it's just . . . well, it's a sense of wonder! As a child, you believed in the impossible."

            "Sure, I did, but I was a child."

            "Do you remember believing in Santa Claus?"

            "Of course, but . . . "

            "But nothing! It's a sad day for children when they stop believing in Santa Claus."

            I remembered. It was kind of a shock.

            "Tell me something. When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?"

            "I think I was about seven years old."


            "Well, it started when Jeffy Odem told me that there was no Santa Claus."

            "Who was Jeffy Odem?"

"He was a kid who attended my school. He was a year ahead of me."

            "Were you and he friends?"

            "No, I never liked him."

            "Ah, he was a bully, right? I'll bet you weren't the only one he told."

            "No, there were about five of us sitting at the table. Later I saw him telling other kids in the class, too."

            "But the important question is: did you believe him?"

            "No, I didn't, but I went home and told my dad what Jeffy had said, and he told me the truth."

            "And then what?"

I thought for a minute. "Then I asked my dad if I could help him put out presents for my younger brothers and sisters."

         "And Jeffy Odem thought there was no Santa Claus!"

         "I don't follow you."

          "You learned a fact as part of growing up, but there was truth beyond the fact. The truth is that it doesn't matter whether there is a fat man who lives at the North Pole and flies around the world distributing toys. You wanted to preserve that joy and wonder for your brothers and sisters, you wanted to perform an act of charity and generosity, and you wanted to help your parents. Jeffy Odom was mean to you, and you responded with love and generosity. As long as people have that Christmas spirit, you'll have every reason to believe in Santa Claus."

           I hadn't thought about it before. In fact, I hadn't even thought much about Jeffy Odom and the whole Santa Claus business at all.

         "OK, Max, you're right. I have lost a little of that."

         "That's not all you've lost, though."

         "What do you mean?"

         "Did you notice how quickly you dismissed any talk of Christmas miracles?"

         "Christmas miracles?"

         "Sure! I told you that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas, and you dismissed it as 'just a legend'. Excuse me? I told you, and it's just a legend? I told you???"

         "But . . . "

         "But nothing! Why wouldn't it be possible?"

         I had no answer.

         "Didn't you ever read Hamlet? Don't you remember how Shakespeare said that at Christmas time, the rooster sings all night, and the song prevents spells and black magic from working? Go look it up. I know you have a copy of Hamlet on your shelf that you haven't opened since college. Are you going to tell me that's just a legend? What if it's true?"

         "I haven't heard roosters singing all night . . . "

         "But are you sure they don't?"

         Again, I had no answer.

         "How about the way that people act this time of year? Haven't you noticed how kind, considerate, patient, and generous people can be? Haven't you seen how donations and charitable contributions go up at this time of year?"

         "Yes, I have noticed it."

         "Well, what do you make of it? On another day, the same people might be mean, cynical, and impatient, but at Christmas, everyone is joyful. That's no legend."

         "No, it's not."

         "Did you know that man who drove past us just before we got to the park? The one dressed like Santa Claus?"

         "No, I didn't."

         "But you greeted him anyway."

         "Yes, I did. He greeted me first."

         "Well, that man was Jeff Odom."


         "That's right. That was the same man who told you that there was no Santa Claus. His sister lives just down the street, and every year on Christmas, right about dawn, he drops off presents for her children. He puts on the Santa Claus suit in case anyone is up early."

         "How do you know that?"

         "He has a dog. I know everything worth knowing about every dog owner in this town. Every dog in town knows all about you, too!"

         I thought that Max would need to spend more time outside in the future, but still, he had made some good points.

         "Something wonderful happens this time of year. Maybe those legends aren't true, but what if they are? What if some of them are true? What if only ONE of them is true? Isn't it possible, at least?"

         I sat in silence.

         "God Himself became a man and was born on Christmas Day. If the Creator of the heavens and the earth can become a Baby, then why can't animals speak for an hour?"

         I pondered all this in silence. He was right; I had lost my sense of wonder. What if the legends were true? I pondered the question until Max spoke again.

         "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

         "I beg your pardon?"

         "The sunrise. It's beautiful, isn't it?"

         I looked out over the bay, and the sun was climbing above the horizon. "Yes, it is beautiful!"

         "It's more than beautiful; it's wonderful. It's full of wonder! It's a daily miracle."

         "Yes, it is."

         "Well, you'd better get up now. It's almost 6:00."

         "Almost 6:00? I got up at 6:00. It must be closer to 7:00."

         "It's almost 6:00. Look at your alarm clock."

         "What do you mean?"

         "Just look."  He pointed with his nose.

         I looked in the direction he had indicated and saw my alarm clock on a side table. "What is that doing here?"  I turned back to Max, and we weren't in Krippe Park anymore; we were in my room.

         "It's time to get up! It's time to get up!"  He opened his mouth and made a noise exactly like my alarm clock.

         I sat upright in bed and gasped. I looked around and saw that I was in my room, and that nothing was out of the ordinary. I got up, turned off my alarm clock, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. I looked at the time and date on my watch and saw that it was December 25: Christmas Day. I tried to make sense of it. What had just happened? How did I get back home? Then, I figured it out: it was a dream. I breathed a sigh of relief, then I smiled and chuckled.

         I looked around the house and saw everything as it should be. I turned on the Christmas lights, went back into the kitchen, and looked down at Max, who was still asleep. There was no way, I thought, that he had been up any time recently. I smiled again. It was all just a dream, a silly and meaningless dream. The best thing to do was to forget about it. I decided to put Max's food out so that he could eat as soon as he was awake.

         As I took his food off the shelf, I heard a voice behind me. "Dandy Dog? You're feeding me Dandy Dog again?"

         I turned around and looked at Max. He was awake, and he was looking straight at me. We stared at each other in silence for a moment, and then he went to the other corner, picked up the leash in his mouth, brought it over and dropped it at my feet. Then he looked up at me and said, "Come on, let's take a walk."

About the author  

Father Richard Libby is a Catholic priest. His poems have been published by Grand Little Things and Korrektiv Press, and he has completed NaNoWriMo twice.


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