I grew up with a number of elaborate, time-consuming Christmas traditions. About a week before The Big Day, the whole family would pile into Dad's car, and we wandered between 3 or 4 live tree sales lots, hunting down The Perfect Tree. We kids were always a little disappointed with Dad's choice as we headed home: somewhat scrawny and misshapen. Mom knew better, I suppose - with an adult's practical foresight, she had an eye for how all the gifts would fit under, and all the decorations on, the finished tree.

Our tree lights were probably a fireman's nightmare: each year, Dad cut and respliced the same 3 strings of lights, older than me, with a compulsive intensity, consuming a new roll of electrical tape each season. When he finished, 6 hours later, the lights would be perfectly distributed, top to bottom. Elegant, but in retrospect, we were lucky Christmas never caught fire!

All during the week before Christmas, Mom baked. We would arrive home from school to bowls of cookie dough in the fridge, and the baked goodies that didn't need decorating (3 kinds of fudge, chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies, brownies and blondies and lemon bars) cooling on racks out of the family dog's reach.

Our arrival meant it was time to start on the decorated cookies. These were of two basic kinds: cookie press, in chocolate and butter cookie versions, dough squirted through a great syringe-like contraption to form camels, snowmen, trees, wreaths. We kids would carefully press red-hots, colored sprinkles, and nonpareils into the dough, for eyes and ornaments. As these baked, we would work on the cut-out cookies: more butter cookies, and gingerbread, rolled thin and cut out with dies of Santa Claus, sleds, reindeer, and more wreaths and trees and men. We must have had some 20+ cookie dies, and it was like a puzzle to fit them on the rolled-out dough for maximum cut-out efficiency and shape frequency. Mom would have mixed food coloring into cups of sugar slurry, to produce tasty paints of ice blue, pine green, Santa-suit red, star yellow, tree stump brown, and snow white.

After dinner we painted cookies until our fuses grew unmanageably short. "Quit hogging the green! Do we have to finish these tonight?" Then we ate the cookies that cracked in the oven or were unidentifiably misshapen while Dad strung lights on the front-lawn evergreen, and Mom put finishing touches, in pine cones and ribbon, on the wreath for the front door.

There were dozens of Christmas cards to sign, holiday tchotchkes to unwrap from storage and place just so around the living room, dining room, and kitchen, and knitted Christmas stockings to hang on the china closet doorknobs. On Christmas Eve, we hung the tree ornaments: blown-glass balls and icicles, frosted with brushed metal and glitter, handed down from a previous generation; Mom's crocheted snowflakes, clowns and elves, and more tiny red stockings; wooden soldiers and mice in mittens and scarves, bundled up warm for sleigh-rides and snowball fights in the playland of the pine boughs. That scrawny, misshapen tree would fill out into a glorious symbol of all the glittery mystery and hope (and maybe a touch of greed) of Christmas morning.

In later years, we were permitted a glass of wine or a couple splashes of amaretto as we decorated. Dad left more of the decorating to the wife and kids, contenting himself to relax on the couch, watching and jockeying between the oldies and country radio stations. Finally, desensitized to the scent of pine and itching to finish, we hung tinsel: one strand at a time, carefully spaced on each branch and twig, until the whole tree cast rainbow reflections of its own light on the walls and ceiling. There would be a bedtime snack of brownies or chocolate chip squares, then off to dream of sugarplums and other such childish hearts' desires.

Here's wishing the happiest of holidays to noders everywhere!

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