Sometimes, the most memorable Christmas gift you receive isn't a conventional present.
I received one such gift last year from an unlikely source, my beagle Charlie. Like my other two dogs and cat, Charlie is a rescue pet, with little known about his past.
He is a handsome, pudgy, patient soul with deep brown eyes, long and floppy ears and the roundest head you have ever seen. He eats anything and, true to his hound dog nature, can spend ages just sniffing an empty Styrofoam coffee cup.
Charlie has the knack of making a 20-minute walk last more than an hour because he never met a shrub, fallen branch or piece of litter that he didn't want to smell ... repeatedly.
Charlie was 7 years old when I adopted him, and during his first four Christmases with me I never did much decorating. My indoor decorations consisted of a 20-inch, one-piece tabletop tree. If you aren't planning to entertain over the holiday and you have to work on Christmas Day, there isn't much need to decorate lavishly.
Last year, though, I decided decorating would be different because I did not have to work on the holiday. I would make 2012 the year to go all out with lights, ornaments and a full-sized tree.
As I dragged out the boxes of ornaments for my tree, Charlie and my other two beagles were initially interested, but after thoroughly exploring the boxes of lights and decorations they lost interest in my work. As pampered creatures of comfort, they ended up in the TV room for a long winter nap.
A light snow was falling, and the early darkness of a frosty evening was visible outside the window as I finished. I turned off the lights and lit the tree. Charlie awakened and came into the room, stopping short. His eyes grew large as he stared at the sparkling tree in the corner.
Not a muscle moved on the little dog, as Charlie was clearly mesmerized. While many of us see the shopping, frantic activities and expense of the holidays, Charlie saw only the wonder of the season through his pure and innocent eyes. His expression that day was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.
It's difficult to know why Charlie reacted to the decorated tree as he did. Maybe he had never seen one before. He'd been found half-starved on the streets, after all, and taken to a shelter. This shelter's policy, because of the many animals it receives, is normally to put down unclaimed pets after a week. Because a shelter volunteer grew fond of him, however, Charlie's grace period mercifully stretched to five weeks.
A rescue group that found Charlie at that point sent him to a foster home for two months to regain his health. Charlie then came to me for adoption Jan. 2, 2009.
When I took him to the vet for an initial checkup, it was recommended that he have his teeth cleaned. I learned that Charlie had had two teeth broken in a straight line. The vet and I discussed the possibility that Charlie had been hit or kicked in his mouth.
In spite of his harsh past, Charlie remains loving and joyful. He loves both an elderly neighbor and a tiny baby. He gives love with his whole heart, whether someone is male or female, teenage or middle age.
Most of all, Charlie loves kids. If a child is nearby when he is out on a walk or another trip away from the house, he has to stop and see them. He greets children with delight and a lot of frantic tail-wagging. I often joke that Charlie would trade me for a kid any day.
Who knows what things have happened to this happy, loving dog? What I do know is that Charlie has no meanness in him. Unlike people, the cruelty of life has not stopped him from loving. He has no desire to return the hurt that life has dealt him.
Maybe that is what the real message of the Christmas season should be -- returning hatred with love, showing kindness rather than seeking revenge. Instead of taking, we all need a reminder to give, and that is this little dog's gift to everyone he meets.
Emma Forsythe, a behavioral health consultant, lives in Jefferson Hills.