Dreaming of a White Dog Christmas

Learning a lesson in holiday expectations

By Cassie Bustamante

I’ve heard it said that the key to happiness is to lower your expectations. No one knows that better than a parent who has carefully plotted a Big Christmas Surprise.

Christmas morning of 1988, dressed in my ruffled flannel nightgown, I bounded down the stairs, making a sharp left turn into the living room, where our tree glistened with presents underneath. And there, like a beacon of light, I spied the gift I’d wanted with my whole 10-year-old heart.

My mother stood behind me, her permed curls askew from sleep and her excitement about the brand new 10-speed Santa had delivered written on her face. I ran towards the bike and quickly snatched Fievel, the squishy, behatted, floppy-eared mouse from An American Tail, off the seat and swung him in my arms with a squeal. I hadn’t even noticed the bike.

Now, as a mother of three, I fully understand the disappointment my parents must have felt, anxiously awaiting my thrill over the “big gift” they’d saved up to purchase, only to have it trumped by a seemingly silly object. Because it’s happened to me.

As all life-changing events in our household, it began with a conversation with my husband, Chris.

“This might be the last Christmas Emmy believes!” I insisted. “Just picture how magical it will be when she comes down the stairs to see a puppy of her own under the tree.”

“But we already have two dogs,” he reminded me.

“Well, what’s one more?”

It’s rare that Chris tells me no, especially when it comes to his only daughter.

A couple of months later, I crawled out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas morning to sneak away to a friend’s house a half hour away, where, as a favor to me, she was fostering the rescue I’d chosen for Emmy. The puppy was mostly white, a calico miniature schnoodle — a “designer” cross between a miniature schnauzer and a miniature poodle, a really prized breed. However, because this fancy little mutt was born deaf, the breeder had rejected her.

As I raced home to beat the kiddos’ inevitably early wakeup, the curly-eared pup snuggled in my lap, blissfully unaware of the stress — and utter excitement — I was feeling.

With about 10 minutes to spare, I made it. We set the puppy’s small carrier in the living room next to our tree and put her inside while we anxiously awaited the pitter-patter of footsteps from above. Meanwhile, the puppy had found her voice, sounding the rise-and-shine alarm throughout the house.

Soon enough, Emmy’s face appeared in the doorway as I beamed, hands clasped at my heart. It was finally here: the moment I’d been picturing for months!

“A sled!” She shrieked, dashing to the tree where the cheapest orange plastic saucer Walmart sold sat. “Santa got me the sled I wanted!!!”

Despite the high-pitched yelps and commotion, she hadn’t noticed the puppy. 

The moment wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. While I was initially disappointed, perhaps in the end we got something better. Just like my own parents, we now have a story we retell — and laugh about — each Christmas as a reminder that the kids will be happy, no matter how big or small the gifts. And we, as parents, will, in fact, discover that holiday magic if we just let go of our expectations.

As for Snowball, the fluffy white pup, she just turned 7, and our family’s love for her has long outlasted that traffic-cone orange sled. And while she can’t hear it, the bell still rings for the rest of us, as it does for all who truly believe in Christmas magic.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is managing editor of O.Henry magazine.

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