Christmas tree is decorated in memories
Ornaments galore

Friday, December 25, 1998

BY The Cincinnati Enquirer

Santa took his life into his own hands last night. He came to my house. He said not a word. But went straight to his work. He didn't stumble and call me a jerk -- even though I left a slew of boxes on the floor in front of the Christmas tree for him to trip over.

The boxes hold ornaments, lights and tinsel. I'm still decorating the tree.

Been at it since the night I lugged this Fraser fir into the house. That was on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. If all goes well and the branches don't break off or my long-suffering wife doesn't break my neck, I should be finished by March.

Compared to my tree-decorating pace, glaciers at the North Pole move like lightning. But, there's no rushing this happy project. It takes a long, long time to hang a lifetime of memories on a tree. Just putting the strands of lights on the tree took all of one weekend. And brought back memories of past tree trimmings with every needle I jabbed under my fingernails.

At my house, when you're stringing lights on a tree, two rules must be followed. No wires can show. Bare spots between the branches must be attractively backlit, like actors on the set of a Hollywood movie, to show off each ornament's best features.

Every ornament on this tree gets treated like a star. That would include my 101 Snoopys and my wife's Peter Rabbit collection which keeps multiplying Christmas after Christmas.

Every ornament tells a story. And each one must be retold at Christmas. There's the antique glass tree-topper my mom gave me a century ago and the brass manatee my niece was so thrilled to bring back from Florida. Stories accompany the buffalo spotted in Yellowstone, the Buckingham Palace guard brought back from London and the streetcar named Desire discovered during our honeymoon in New Orleans.

The clear plastic cup hanging from a top branch came from a coconut ice cream treat my dad loved to eat during the holidays. When my sister and I were kids, we'd wait for him to finish dessert, then scoop up the cup, wash it and scurry to the bedroom housing our ornament factory. On a card table covered with newspaper, we'd put globs of Elmer's Glue on that plastic cup. Then, frost it with a blizzard of red and green glitter. Behold! An ornament.

Three shiny metal icicles always make their annual appearance on the edge of a branch. The icicles could have cost all of a dime at a 10-cent store. But to my wife, they are priceless. They belonged to her parents. For the last two Christmases, she has hung those ornaments in silence, in memory of her mom and dad.

After I think the tree can't hold any more ornaments, there's always one last box to open. That holds the stable my dad made out of cedar for our Nativity scene.

The stable's wooden walls and roof are raw, and unvarnished. Their color is a swirl of reds, pinks, creams and browns. My dad's signature, strong and scrawling, is burned into the base. It's next to the date he made the stable, three years and a month before he died.

But I don't see any of that when I open the box. All I can do is smell the spicy aroma of cedar drifting from layers of tissue paper.

One whiff and I am a little kid again, at my dad's side, sitting on a stool by his workbench, in a room that felt like Santa's workshop. Tools were everywhere. A homemade surprise was always in the works. You'd open the door and my dad would quickly toss a sheet over something. Ask him what he was working on and he'd lie by answering, "nothing." Then, he'd grin sheepishly.

I see his grin every time I open the stable's box. It reminds me that this is a day dedicated to happiness and joy.

Let there be no time spent on words like impeachment or war. Christmas is about unwrapping happy memories and giving joy to the world. Now, if you would, hand me another ornament.

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