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Once the final strand of tinsel is placed, I can settle down on the loveseat and enjoy.

My husband claims I place the icicles on one strand at a time--not true. Maybe five at a time, starting from the bottom, so the sleek loveliness of the silver drapes properly from top to bottom. One can't blame him. He grew up with garlanded trees and considers it simpler and just as festive. Even my mother when well into her eighties admitted that she no longer used icicles. They were simply too difficult for her arthritic fingers.

It takes about 90 minutes to put it all on properly and I will admit that after the first half hour the novelty palls. But the finished Christmas tree, like a newly-birthed baby, makes one forget about the previous problems. The tree is already beautiful with its lights and combination of glass balls, Hallmark creations, and cloth and ceramic baubles from various sources. But the tinsel holds the key to enchantment: from now on, any breath of air, from the puff of the heating vent to a stray eddy from insufficiently insulated doors to even the tiny breath of the budgie, will make the strands dance, as if the tree is alive. "Sara" truly turns into a little princess.

Most Christmas trees don't have names, but my last two have. Sara replaced "Hope," the two- foot tree just the right size for a small two-bedroom apartment and then a studio "suite." Once the prospect came of moving into larger digs, with a big living/dining room, a new tree was desired.

But I wasn't looking for a Christmas tree the October day I found one. In fact, I was in a decidedly non-Yuletide mood: I was being prodded into going to a shopping mall on a day I was feeling downright cranky. My reaction to being there was grumbling and shuffling of feet.

And then passing by a seasonal shop I looked inside and saw the most perfect 4 1/2 foot artificial tree (my allergy allows no other). Hence the name "Serendipity," "Sara" for short, as the discovery was truly a happy accident.

To accompany Sara's surprising nature, this year there was even a long-awaited novelty: a new set of lights in "just the right colors." From childhood I have been a color junkie, from autumn leaves to 64 color boxes of Crayola crayons. I looked at strings of blue, red, green, and yellow, with or without the additional magenta pink, and repeatedly asked why lights never came in the six colors of the rainbow. Bless the heart of someone at General Electric; I finally found just a set: purple, royal blue, emerald green, yellow, a peculiar but not unpleasant cantaloupe orange, and red.

At 4 1/2 feet, however, the tree faces a bit of a handicap: as we buy more ornaments for it, it's rapidly approaching critical mass. In 2000 I removed some of the older small glass ornaments from McCrory's, most faded from being on "the sun side" of the tree, for use in a glass jar, a decoration I'd seen in several magazines. It was a charming creation, but the loss of 15 ornaments was supplanted by 15 (or perhaps more) others, Hallmark ornaments from last year's 40 percent off sale as well as hand-blown novelties discovered in a local store.

Nevertheless, ornament juggling will go on, as I'm hopelessly attached to even the eldest of the baubles: the indented balls from McCrory's, little cotton ornaments--including a unicorn in a stocking--from god knows where, the "soap bubble" balls from a defunct craft store, the little trumpets and bells from the still very-much-missed PharMor, the delightful "satin balls."

The tree is, as it was always in my childhood, the capper of holiday decorations. Without the energy of youth, some garlands over doors, a bouquet or two of holiday greens, Christmas windows clings, and an Italian "Christmas tree" called a ceppo, suffice these days, a far cry from when my imagination ran riot from the day after Thanksgiving.

My mother kept me reined in. Even today I feel a bit uncomfortable seeing Christmas trees blazing over the landscape on Thanksgiving night; I add decorations each Sunday of Advent, but the tree doesn't make its annual appearance at least until my birthday, December 11, but again, it isn't ripped away the moment the presents are open. I follow the Italian tradition of the 12 days of Christmas, so Sara sparkles on into the night until January 6, the day of the Epiphany, long after sad remnants of the neighbors' firs dot the gutters. Mom usually compromised and we took our tree down New Year's Day.

Dad's dictum was that the tree didn't go up until the Sunday before Christmas. If the holiday was early in the week, I wheedled and persuaded and a friendly pine might grace the living room on the third Sunday of Advent. When I was small, before my kindly pediatrician discovered I didn't have a lot of colds, just too many allergies, we had a real tree. Shuffling through old fifties snapshots, you discover these trees are much different than the ones you buy today: lot Christmas trees are now what they called "shaved," or trimmed over the year to retain that perfect conical shape. Those mid-20th century trees were either cut wild like their earlier counterparts or came from tree farms that scattered seedlings then harvested them years later without intervention. Short limbs could show up in the middle, with disconcerting longer ones near the crown of the tree, and no matter how diligent the search, the tree always had a "bald spot" that ended up facing a wall, and which required "decorating around."

Mom taught me how to hang the ornaments from the time I could be trusted with glass balls: two reds should not be hung together, or any other duplicates of color. You scattered them at four corners and other angles; the small ornaments at the top tapering to the large ones at the bottom. Every year a few were retired--for a long time we still had some striped, colorless balls from World War II kept as family heirlooms--and then we could go into the wilderness of glitter and gold that was the Woolworth's or Grant's ornament section and buy a new set. My favorites were the set flocked with white "snow" that showed kids sledding or spelled out "Merry Christmas."

And of course we always came home with one new box of tinsel.

After the tree was carefully decorated, we laid a piece of foil under the front and finished the decoration by unwrapping the manger figurines. We had everyone: not just the Holy Family and the Three Kings, but camels for each of the kings, shepherds, sheep, the sheepdog, a goat, and the little boy offering a hat full of eggs to the Baby Jesus. Back then should one of the figures break, you could buy individual pieces from bins snuggled in the corner of the five-and-tens--and still we couldn't break up the original set: we kept the sheep with a broken leg (it was propped on the wooden stable that my dad had worked a light bulb into to illuminate the scene) and the rubber camel and sheep, relics from an earlier era.

Now for the next two weeks, I could indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, reading under the Christmas tree. Even when miniature lights replaced the big, old-fashioned traditional bulbs, I could still sit crosslegged at the foot of the sparkling tree with a book or even a lap desk, pen and pad, creating Christmas stories. Sometimes I would lean back and stare upward into the branches, where the lights, glass, and needles all blended in an enticing pathway to some land of enchantment.

We had "candles" in the window, as well, with the old narrow "Candolier" bulbs that were ridged to give the illusion of real flame. Later Dad was sufficiently tempted by the neighbors' burgeoning yard displays to string a set of outdoor lights around the "trellis" that surrounded our front window and door, even if it meant he spent the entire Christmas season in frustration since the passing students from the nearby junior high liked to filch a bulb or two every other day. But it was his contribution to the season's festivities and he gamely, if grumblingly, kept up with the losses. (Our loss, of course, being Woolworth's gain.)

As soon as the tree was up, it was Mom's signal to start baking. Generations of children on television seem to have grown up on sugar cookies covered in blobby icing; they evidently weren't Italian children. We had cookies, too, but of a different kind: almond bars, golden colored and thick with nuts; molasses cookies with and without walnuts, chocolately brown and deeply flavored; "butterballs"--what I have seen other places called "Danish wedding cookies," round and nutty and coated in powdered sugar; and my favorite of all, wine biscuits, crisp and delicious. When finished we had plates of cookies to share with relatives and my godmother, who, of course, offered cookies in return, so there was never an end to them for weeks. My aunts baked even more: stained glass cookies, thumbprint cookies, even the finicky fried "wandi" treats, twisted lengths of dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and more frangible than glass. Their cookie plates were always scattered with Hershey kisses to make the treat doubly so.

So the house became filled with holiday color and scents: trees (for in my adolescence I had trees all over the house, a small gold aluminum one on the porch, a one-foot miniature in my bedroom, a two-foot confection in the basement with my books and my writing desk), cookies, ribbon candy, the inevitable plate of pale, nut-studded torrone and sliced and wrapped hard candy fruits. Christmas morning would bring uncles calling to savor the goodies and add another sweet odor to the kitchen: that of a small jigger of brandy or vermouth. I wasn't much for alcohol but I loved the tablespoon of brandy added on below-zero cold mornings to my breakfast eggnog--fully endorsed by my pediatrician; how times have changed!

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were more akin to pilgrimages back then. Bearing plates of wrapped cookies, we spent the evening and next day visiting relative after relative: first to my mother's family, then making the rounds on Farmington Avenue to my dad's brothers and sisters. More than likely, especially as I grew older, I'd wonder why no one ever came to our house, but now on a Christmas day that consists chiefly of sitting in a comfy armchair, I remember the "flitting" with affection. Despite frosted toes--for back then we were always in our best clothes, which included skirts and thin stockings--the venue ever changed, with opportunities to crowd around a different kitchen table every few hours, to be offered the specialty of the house and catch up on family events, bathed in the warm sleepy scent of coffee that overlay the entire room.

And always there was a new Christmas tree to visit and different ornaments to admire: one still had the old bubble lights from the fifties, much coveted, another long, twisted glass cones in varying colors that simulated icicles, yet another still brave with vintage finery--World War II-era clear balls, tinsel-filled spheres, even old kugel carefully saved from Woolworth's foray into German- made decorations. One relative gave over to modernism in the 1960s and bought an aluminum tree with red balls and a revolving colored spotlight. It was as cold and cheerless as a January day and I simply could not imagine snuggling up to read a good book under its metal limbs or opening gifts in its stark shadow on Christmas morning.

The movement of the clock, as always, becomes inevitable. December's exhilarating anticipation is replaced by celebration, rest, a final hurrah at New Year's, and then the winding down of the Yuletide season as January steps into the queue. Eventually, as beautiful as the laden branches look, the tree becomes a stranger to the new season, and dutifully, with the rest of the garlands and geegaws, the ornaments, the lights, and finally Sara herself are sent back into hibernation. The parlor regains its somber look, but there are always reminders--a flash of multicolor light, a silvery twinkle, a whiff of spice and molasses, the sweet tongue of a small bell--to remind you that soon the end of the year--and its delights--will roll around once more.

 
 
Note: "Sara" was retired in 2005. We took her to Goodwill, where we hope she is making yet another family happy.

 

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