Christmas Eve has always been my favourite day of the year. The birthplace of my fondest and most enduring childhood memories evolved on this midwinter night.

I suppose it was the anticipation; the celebration of wondrous things that were about to unfold. The fabulous food combined with the fellowship of family and friends made for an especially festive occasion.

One particular Yuletide was special. The year was 1964, an Adirondack snowstorm was spreading a fluffy blanket of snow over Johnstown, New York. This was a holiday gift from the nearby mountains to protect the town from the intense cold to follow. The wintry white was seemingly infinite.

My dog, Butchy, and I, both 15, were outside tasting the snowflakes. This was one of our favourite winter games. She would leap into the air as high as she could and snap at the icy hexagons as they fell to earth.

"Go, Girl," I yelled trying to enhance her sporting nature.

Letting gravity do the work, I would just stand still and let the snowflakes land on my protruding tongue enjoying the icy cold wetness as they hit. It was a race to see who could capture more:  a competition with two winners.

As we cavorted in the yard, the aromas of bacon, garlic, coffee, and Kahlua wafted through the open back door as my father dragged in the Douglas Fir that we would decorate that evening.

My mother had been frying the dozen or so strips of bacon, just one of the secret ingredients, which would later be crumbled and mixed with the other meat varieties for her special lasagne.

In the drippings, she carefully toasted several garlic cloves, sliced wafer thin, until they turned a very light golden colour. She was always watchful since burnt garlic has a distinctly bitter taste. This was something my mother would not tolerate in any of her cuisine.

Other bowls sitting on the red and white Formica-topped kitchen table held the makings for a variety of culinary delights. My mother could multitask (before the term had been invented), preparing several dishes at once while maintaining an acute awareness on the progress of each.

She was finishing the preparation of her tiramisu cheesecake with Kahlua cream sauce. It was the crowning dessert for such a special holiday evening.

As darkness encroached over the mountains, Butchy and I raced inside. Our entrance was heralded by a confetti trail of snowflakes and water droplets left in our wake. I scrambled out of my winter gear eager to devour the savoury delights whose aromas had first teased us and ultimately lured us inside.

My mother's lasagne had a three-meat layer of beef, veal, and pork. Topping this meat layer were slices of provolone cheese. This was a refining extra. The lasagne also had ricotta cheese and mozzarella cheese layers between the broad al dente noodles.

All of this was covered by a rich, thick homemade tomato sauce enhanced with spices and then baked to perfection in a 350 degree oven.

The lasagne sat in the centre of the dining room table, which had been set for a royal feast. On the sideboard were the tiramisu cheesecake, homemade French biscuits, string beans with almond slivers, and glasses of white Zinfandel wine. This was a special vintage fermented with love by my father.

Around the table sat my father, James Senior, my mother, Mary, who had positioned herself to have complete access to the kitchen, my mother's younger sister, my Aunt Tina, and me. Butchy resided at my feet during the meal laying quietly beside me. She knew not to beg at the table.

My aunt's garlic croissants - a greatly anticipated annual treat - had a flaky crisp crust that crunched in ones' mouth releasing the essence of a savoury garlic and herb cream cheese filling. This delicacy was a holiday gift to our senses.

Everything was superb! A variety of tasty treasures combining to ensure a memorable dinner.

After the meal we adjourned to the living room. Our Christmas tree was always placed in a corner (never in front of a window). It was our own family tradition. My father had already initiated the ritual by securing the majestic fir in the tree stand.

Everyone took turns adorning the tree with ornaments and strings of lights until its needles were barely visible.

My mother's favourite decoration was my first pair of bronzed baby shoes which hung from a branch by their laces.

"James," she said, "those were your very first pair of shoes, and I can remember the day your Aunt Frances (my Godmother) gave them to you."

She continued, "Each and every ornament is a moment of remembrance. Life is measured in moments. And these are a gift from the past hanging here from a branch."

My mother was right, and our tree was loaded with more than most. Our tree symbolized not only the holiday but also, the importance of family and tradition.

The lights' plug sparked as it entered the wall socket completing its connection to the power source and our connection to the heritage embodied in these decorations.

The multi-coloured hues danced merrily across the living room with some boldly venturing into other parts of the house.

Butchy sat up and barked in appreciation. She loved Christmas as much as I did.

Later, everyone said our 'goodnights' and headed to bed. Since the day had been tiring and mass was at 8 am., we needed to be up early to dress for church.

Every night one of my parents checked on me. They were protective since I was their only child. And they had been older when I arrived:  my mother, 39 and my father, 50.

Tonight, this display of parental concern fell to my father. After lights out, he crept up the stairs to my bedroom.

The hall light softened the blackness of my bedroom and caused Butchy to look up as he entered.

He sat down on the edge of my bed. Butchy raised her head from my chest, and my father patted her as he spoke.

"James," he began, "the best gifts I can give you this Christmas are the little lessons I have learned over the years. Many of these came through trial and error, but I know which ones are worthwhile and what will work for you."

"Next year, you'll turn 16; you'll be a young man; you'll learn to drive. But you must never ever forget where you came from."

Here was the wisdom of the ages from a man who barely got past the eighth grade. He was a born philosopher, and he was an animal whisperer in the truest sense.

"Living life," he continued, "is what we all have to do. But some of us do it a heck of a lot better than others."

"The love of a dog is the magic that binds the two of you together. And it only takes one dog to change your life forever."

"You know, James, Butchy is one of the smartest dogs I have ever known. And I know that she loves you very much."

"When I come into your room at night, she always has her head on your chest. She rests it there because she is listening to your heart. It's her way of making sure you're okay.  And because she loves you, she also listens to you with her heart when you talk to her."

"Your heart is the centre of your life. It is the source from which all of your love flows."

"Whenever someone is speaking to you, you will never go wrong if you listen with heart."

"And Son, if you follow your heart, you can make every day Christmas Day for the rest of your life."

When he had said all he had come to say, he got up and went to the door. In the distance I could hear Saint Patrick's Church bell chiming for midnight mass.

The sliver of light grew smaller as the door closed on that Christmas Eve. It had almost latched, but then, re-opened. My father loved a captive audience.

"And one more thing," he began again, "you never knew your grandfather - my father - Ignacio."

"I need to share something with you he once told me."

He said to me, "'Remember Son, that you were loved by an old man - an old man who loved dogs - who loved dogs more than he loved people.'"

"And do you know why he told me this?"

I stared at him blankly.

"Because he knew that - unlike people - the only time a dog will break your heart - is when it dies."

As the hall light got smaller from the other side I heard my father say, "Merry, Christmas, James."

That was to be Butchy's last Christmas but even now, fifty years later, I still taste snowflakes. And each and every time, I experience the love and joy that special dog still brings.

"Merry Christmas, Butchy."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  James has been nominated four times and has thrice received the Maxwell Medallion given by the Dog Writers Association of America. A past president of the Animal Rescue & Foster Program of Greensboro, NC. James shares his home with a housemate and seven rescue dogs. He is a lead clerk with Barnes & Noble Booksellers. His stories have appeared in Cesar's Way; New York Dog; O'Henry Magazine; Happy Tails Magazine; and many others.





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