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A Conversation (with myself) Before Christmas

“No, I’m not going to put up a Christmas tree this year. After more than 70 years of Christmas trees, I think I can take a break. When the children come over for dinner, I’ll just put out a nice little table with a red cloth and they can put their gifts there. As for me, I don’t need anything anyway, except maybe a box of Belgium chocolates. In any case, my gifts to them are mostly in small envelopes these days. No need to have a tree just to have a place to put gifts.”

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“No, I’m not going to put up an artificial tree with the lights already on it. They don’t smell like Christmas and they are too perfect.    I was looking at the family album of Christmas pictures the other day. All those black and white photos show me standing in front of a tree that had wide gaps between the branches and was definitively not symmetrical. I remember going downtown to the City Dock lot with my parents to buy the Christmas tree. It seemed to always be the coldest evening of the year. The ground was damp and muddy and it took forever to find a corner tree — which meant that one side was flat and the price was lower. Back home, my father held it up over the tree stand while my mother, standing across the room, asked him to turn it and then turn it back and then turn it around again. Apparently we had gotten a tree that had several corner sides. In any case, it was definitely not symmetrical and sometimes not even completely straight. But at least it had a Christmas tree fragrance.

Now the trees come from Christmas tree farms and are all perfect. Any long, looping branches have been trimmed back to eliminate the possibility of a less-than-perfect side. It’s rather like the Christmas turkey, hard to distinguish one from the other in the supermarket’s freezer. I rather prefer the free-range birds, myself. Perhaps we should have free-range Christmas trees.”

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“I have written a check to the local Boy Scout troop as a contribution in lieu of buying a tree from them. That’s the best I can do. It’s one thing to have the Christmas spirit, but quite another to equate it to a tree. I’ll take the check to them tomorrow when I go out.”

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“No, I’m not going to haul out those old ornaments. Why some of them go back to the war years when, I was told, there were no ornaments in the stores so we had to make our own. Red paper chains, three links long, made in first grade have hung, crumpled and faded, on the tree every year since then. 1945: That was also the year of the silver walnuts. In California, walnuts were plentiful and cheap. As we were at a Navy base, there was plenty of silvery aluminum paint. My mother carefully cracked dozens of walnuts, cleaned out the nut meat (for cookies), cut black coat thread to make loops, and then glued the walnut halves together with the thread for hanging the nut on the tree. In the evening, my father would spread out the newspapers on the kitchen table and he and my mother would paint all the walnuts and hang them up to dry. By morning, they had become the silver ornaments to decorate our little tree. Now, 70 years later — those walnuts need a rest!”

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“No, I don’t want to straighten out the paper, three-dimensional stars that always get tangled with the tin-can-top stars. Those stars should be thrown out. I just can’t remember the pattern of exactly how we folded the small squares of metallic paper and snipped along the edges. One way, you got a lacey snowflake and the other way you got an eight-pointed star. Weave the star through the snowflake, puff out the center, and you have a beautiful addition for any tree.    Anyway, they’ve all gotten tangled with the old stars we made from tin-can tops. Not every tin-can top; just those that were a shinny silver or gold on both sides. Seems as though we ate a lot of canned food just before Christmas trying to find the tops suitable for ornaments. It was hard to make those stiff tin shears actually cut the small lines, but fun to take the pointed pliers and roll up the metal strips to make the center of the star or twist the edges to give each point a little fringe. With all those pull-top cans now, I probably couldn’t find the proper tops even if I wanted to try this again.”

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“No, I definitely do not want to devote the day before Christmas Eve to popping popcorn and stringing it with cranberries. Whoever thought of this anyway? I think it was my mother whose artist’s eye demanded that the vertical lines of the hanging ornaments be off-set by the horizontal swags of cranberry-popcorn strings. I can’t remember a Christmas when the needle and thread and last unstrung cranberries didn’t sit on the kitchen table well after Christmas day."

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“Speaking of that, I remember the year when my mother and I had just finished decorating the tree — it stood in our big square front hall in the house on Lafayette Avenue — and Ada had just finished her weekly cleaning. Mother asked her to come into the hall and see our Christmas tree. Beaming with pride, my mother said, “Ada, this year we’ve made all the ornaments on the tree!”

Ada looked the tree over — up and down its six feet — and replied, “If you don’t tell anyone, no one will know.” Homemade was definitely not special.”

•   •   •   •   •

“Special? Wait! What am I doing down here in the basement looking for the boxes of ornaments? Oh heck, where’s that check for the Boy Scouts? I’ve got to have a tree.”