MEMORIES OF A FAMILY CHRISTMAS — THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

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First one light goes out and then they all go out! The tree won’t stay up. I think the stand is broken. The angel keeps falling off.

Get the picture? Yeah, we’re decorating for Christmas. The ritual, as aggravating as it can be, is one that the entire family looks forward to each year. That is, until it is actually time to do it. Then all of a sudden, the kids make themselves scarce and Diane and I try to get it all done without snipping at each other.

“Just hold the tree still. Don’t move!” I shout from under the tree. “I’m not moving,” she snaps back. “Calm down.”

“Oh, forget it. Just let the stupid tree go. I need to fix the stupid stand.”

All this while “Joy To The World” is playing in the background.

Now, we’ve always had a freshly cut tree, if you want to call a tree that was cut down in November, thrown onto a truck and sat in some lot for two weeks, “fresh cut.” By the time we get the thing home, half the needles are on the roof of the car. The tree needs to be watered several times a day and of course, nobody ever remembers to do it. So by the time Christmas morning rolls around, the tree looks like a cactus with garland, ornaments and lights hanging from it.

But not this year. For the very first time, we have an artificial tree. We bought it two days after Christmas last year and got a good deal. Rory, my 15-year-old son, was beside himself. He is a traditionalist. Everything has to be just as it was the Christmas before. We thought of moving the tree to a different spot one year. “No!” he lamented. “The tree goes in front of the window. It has to.”

Rory usually initiates the decorating process. He’s the one who starts bringing down the boxes of decorations from the storage area in the upstairs hallway. He and his older sister, Kathleen, start out with the enthusiasm of Santa’s elves, but being teenagers, they have short spans of attention, God bless ’em. After a half hour or so, Kathleen is on the phone, or online, or both and Rory is supervising our efforts from his place on the sofa. Part of the ritual involves a Christmas movie, any Christmas movie, on the television. It doesn’t matter if the New England Patriots are playing an important game, or if President Bush has a big announcement to make. We can’t decorate the house without a Christmas movie, the kids say.

I have to admit, I get a little warm and fuzzy putting the ornaments on the tree. There’s the little wooden sled that Lee made when he was in the fourth grade, and the tin-can snowman that Jay made when he was little. There’s also the tiny Christmas tree ornaments the kids made in Mrs. Baker’s class — the ones with the kids faces on them. Tami’s painted wood ornament from 1989, when she was 6.

There’s the Nutcracker ornament that used to play a song when it moved. Even now, sometimes, it will make a tiny noise when you walk by it. The little Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup that we got at a Yankee Swap one year and the very special ceramic snowmen that we bought one summer at a shop in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine. The Boston Red Sox 2004 World Champions ornament, and Meme’s angel on top.

After the tree is done, it’s time to tackle the rest of the house. We don’t always put up lights outside of the house, but this is one of those years. Diane and I came home one night after visiting a friend in the hospital and the front of the house was brightly lit. Rory had taken it upon himself to wrap the lights around the banister, only they weren’t spread out evenly and as his sister said, it looked like, “a light-bulb factory just threw up on the front porch.”

So the next day I managed to straighten out the ball of mess. Funny, they were all lit when they were in a clump, but when I strung them neatly across the railing, up the pole and across the canopy, only half of them went on.

Inside the house, every nook and cranny holds a bell or bauble. The dining- room hutch is “snowman central.” The snowman snow-globe, the stuffed Frosty the Snowman doll, even the cute little figurine of the snowman in various stages of meltdown. Snowmen everywhere.

And on the back porch, where the guests usually enter, a spot is reserved for the manger. There’s a little Christmas tree out there and it’s probably the most serene place in the house. From out there, you can smell the cookies and coffee cake baking in the oven. You can see Kathleen in the kitchen dancing around to the Christmas songs. You can hear her singing Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” into a spatula.

My family would be hard-pressed to remember what they got for Christmas last year or the year before, but they will remember the ball of mess on the front porch. They will remember the little lit village in the dining room and they will remember decorating the tree. I mean, they will remember watching their parents decorate the tree.

Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is dshaughnessey@thevalleydispatch.com.