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Having a big, beautiful, fresh Christmas tree in the foyer was one of the staples of my childhood. There was something about all those needles falling all over the hardwood floors. The white lights twinkled merrily from deep inside the long, strong branches. It was my job to keep the tree watered, and I did my duty with the single-minded purpose of a child who wanted to be extra-good for Santa.

When Christmas was over and the tree was taken down, I was sad. I would see it sitting at the curb, waiting for the big trucks from the city to come and haul it away. It would be turned into mulch — the town was very much into recycling long before it was the “vogue” thing to do — but it still bothered me. The tree was like a part of our family for a time, and it depressed me to see the branches turning brown for want of the water I had so carefully given it for those weeks it was with us.

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But then I went to college, and soon I realized what luxuries I had back home! Alone and scared to death, I faced Christmas with a touch of dread. I couldn’t afford to go home. I was stuck in my dorm with a few other unlucky friends, all of us huddled around a little plastic tree that one of their family members had sent. It was sprayed with pine scent, an artificial smell if there ever was one. But it was pretty, and it was all I had, and I loved it.

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The next year, times were even tougher. I had gotten married, moved out of that dorm room and now had to pay rent. I also had twin babies, one on each hip. That means little extra money to be had, not even the money for a Christmas tree. We didn’t live in a place where we could simply walk into the woods and cut one down.

I despaired that the tradition of my past was gone forever. But then…

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Then my husband woke up one morning, took a handful of old wire hangers from the corner of the closet, and set about creating a frame that looked suspiciously like a tree. He bought sparkly garlands from the dollar store and wrapped them around the little tree. When night fell on Christmas Eve, he turned on a flashlight and put it inside, making the sparkly parts of the garland glow with a festive light.

It was the best Christmas tree ever.

Today the twins are almost grown and there are three other children running around. The house is no longer a rental, but our own, and we somehow made it through the lean times. Every year there is a big Christmas tree in our foyer, one that is gaily covered with decorations created by our kids.

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But every year, before the big tree goes up, the little tree comes out. It’s the one made of wire hangers and cheap garland, the one that lights up with a little flashlight. It’s a sweet reminder that Christmas really is what you make it.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.