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Santa's Little Helper
The magic of Christmas may be more durable than you think

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Word on the street is that fourth grade is when a child starts seriously doubting the whole Santa gig, and my older daughter is in third, and so there is a statistically high chance that the 2007 holiday season marks the beginning of the end of innocence in our house. This, anyway, is my excuse.

I am going overboard, I know. Way overboard. I came up with this idea. It is because of me and my anticipatory grief that we are at this mall headed to the photo place. The last time we did holiday photos at the mall was when the kids were still in diapers, or one of them was, and it was the thing to do: Dress your girls in red plaid dresses and white tights and shiny patent leather shoes, put a jingle bell or two in their hands, a fake snow backdrop behind them, and coo at them and hope the camera clicks before the one cutting teeth goes into full drool.

Here we are again, years later, and this time we have puppies. Yeah, live puppies wearing reindeer head gear and little felt bibs lined with plastic holly piping.

Overboard. The puppies aren't, technically, puppies anymore. We call them puppies because they're so short and squat, sister mutts my girls got this past March as birthday presents. These creatures have not yet exceeded eight pounds due to some apparent toy poodle lineage that also gives them a scruffy/curly Benji look. Sugar, the smaller of the two, is the more compliant with the reindeer outfit -- as she was for Halloween in her pirate getup and as she is many nights when my daughter dresses her in silky purple pajamas. As for Buttercup, the brains of the family, she has already chewed off the plastic holly, and so we are thinking of nixing the bibs.

"Oh . . . dogs?" says the woman at the photo place. It is not with a tone of glee.

"It's okay to bring puppies for the picture, isn't it?" I say. I swear I saw someone do this before.

"We do like to know about this sort of thing ahead of time," the woman says with a fake smile.

"Buttercup!" my daughter Anna says, tugging her dog away from the tempting lure of a fraying carpet. "Buttercup, if you don't behave, you will not get ice cream after the picture."

"We're getting ice cream?" asks Sasha.

I did not say anything about ice cream.

" We have to give them a reason to behave," Anna explains. (You learn so much about your own parenting skills when you get your kid a dog.)

The woman at the photo place passes us off to a young man with pimples. "He's going to do your sitting," she says. The guy looks pleased to have been taken off floor-sweeping duty. "I like dogs," he says.

"Sugar is pretending to be a reindeer," Sasha says.

"Buttercup wants to get this over with," Anna says.

We head back to the room with the fake snow backdrop. I believe it is the very same one that we used years ago. The girls sit on the fake ice blocks and cradle the puppies in their laps and smile and wave the puppies' paws as they say, "Merry Christmas!" to the camera while I try to repress, because I don't know quite how to express it, a crushing, fleeting joy that reminds me of eating too many marshmallows.

Cute. How many times in this life do you have license to descend into the land of unabashed sugar-plum, gooey, saccharine, Buttercup and Sugar sweetness and survive all that mush? I don't know, but I don't think it's very often, and when Santa's days are numbered you grab all you can.

They do nearly a dozen poses, and afterward I choose cards and mugs and a calendar for my mom and a tie, yes, a tie with photos of the girls and Sugar and Buttercup all up and down it for my husband, who will love it for one split second before he thinks: "Yikes!"

Then we get soft ice cream near the food court while the puppies huddle in their crate. I don't give them ice cream, because I am the mother, and I have determined that ice cream is not good for doggie digestion. We pass a kiosk featuring obnoxious holiday gifts for pets. "Look, girls!" I shout, because I am already so far past overboard that it no longer matters. I consider rawhide candy canes for Buttercup and a red glitter New Year's Eve doggie dress for Sugar while Anna looks on with horror. She turns the crate so the puppies can't see. "You can't get these now!" she says. "The puppies are supposed to think Santa brought them!"

I am taken aback. We have a lot more Santa time left in our house, I think, or we haven't had any of it in a long time. I am not entirely sure which way it leans when your kid is trying to protect her dog from the cruel, hard facts of Santa.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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