Small Wonders: A classical take on Christmas

Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year; with scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. I don't have any scary stories to tell, unless you count the year my brother and I got caught snooping for presents in Mom's closet. But we all have memories, if not glories.

Maybe you have warm thoughts of family excursions deep into the woods to find the perfect tree, cut it down and haul it out with the Forest Service in hot pursuit. Or of being forced to go door-to-door singing Christmas carols to dumbstruck folks who simply want to get back to watching "The Honeymooners." Or of sitting by a roaring fire wondering why Aunt Mabel calls her hot cocoa "special" and won't let you sip it.

But when these memories are played back, they release "the joy of Christmas" into our bloodstream like tryptophan after Thanksgiving dinner. Am I naïve and wistful? Sure. It's not all sugarplum fairies; there's misery and regret too. I spent last Saturday afternoon at the Glendale Galleria as proof of that. But the accuracy of these memories is unimportant. They serve as triggers for that much-needed yuletide mood each year.

I've never had a white Christmas. But I do get warm inside when I recall Christmas tree shopping with my family as a boy; going from one small lot to another hunting for the perfect tree; running through mazes of Douglas and Noble firs as if they were clothing racks at Bullock's.

I remember decorating the tree, hanging ornaments randomly, throwing on large clumps of tinsel without care; then watching as my older sisters rearranged everything I'd done; sipping hot chocolate with my back to the fireplace until it burned, then laying on the coolness of the tile floor. And Al Jarreau on the 8-track player bringing it holiday style.

It makes me wonder what my daughters will remember. Though I wish I could make every moment magical for them, leave them with postcard snapshots to conjure idyllic visions of the seasons from their youth, reality may have other plans.

Unlike growing numbers each year, we still get a real Christmas tree. I love the ritual of searching for it, prepping it and taking it in the house; the fragrance and life it brings to the home. So last Sunday, with rumors of bargains dancing in our heads, we set off for a little tree depot. Home Depot that is. Alas, with the wintry conditions ideal for tree shopping — 85 degrees here, reports of blizzards in the Midwest — everyone else in the county had the same idea.

It was immediately apparent why these trees were so affordable: Most were still wrapped in twine, none on stands. I joined dozens of other dads disappearing into stalls to untie our own trees and present them to the family for review. Unwanted trees were dropped pell-mell about the lot like fallen soldiers in battle, creating a very different kind of maze for my girls to run through.

Five minutes and three trees later, their attention span spent, Things 1 and 2 told me they liked every tree in hopes we could simply go home and decorate it, their favorite part. So we grabbed the next one and carried it out ourselves — no tip-hungry teenagers to be seen. We chose to forgo the fresh cut when we saw the Disneyland-length line, as if Santa himself were there with a chainsaw. I'll do it myself, I decided.

At home, the family ran inside to unpack the decorations while I got my tools: hand saw, gloves, beer and a shot of tequila. Have you ever done a fresh cut by hand? Everything but the tequila is optional.

An hour and two shots later, I brought the tree in and Things 1 and 2 began decorating. Before long, though, they were distracted playing "Christmas Classroom" with their favorite ornaments — Herald the Angel, Christmas Frog and one that's either a kangaroo or a bunny. We've never quite figured that one out.

Our stockings were hung by the TV with care. We don't have a fireplace, but a quick On Demand search got us a free video of a roaring, crackling fire — in HD! If you stand close, you can feel realistic heat off the LCD.

I had to get rid of the 8-track player last summer when it choked on a Mac Davis cassette and couldn't be resuscitated. But I pulled out the iPhone, typed "Christmas" into Pandora Internet radio, and we were soon being serenaded by Bing and Frank, Patsy and Burl.

Will all this be for Things 1 and 2 what my childhood reminiscences are to me? Probably. Times may change, but not what makes these moments resonate through our lives.

But Santa help me if Justin Bieber ever comes out with a Christmas album.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the upcoming book "Crooked Little Birdhouse." Check it out at He can be reached at

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