Like many families, our Christmas tree took its place in our living room last weekend. Unlike some families, though, our Christmas tree didn't come from a tree farm or a tree sale - it came from our basement.
As much as I love real Christmas trees, I temporarily rewrote our Christmas tree tradition four years ago.
The Christmas before Monika was born, we ended the Christmas season with half a tree's worth of pine needles embedded in our berber carpet. (We don't have a spot on a hard surfaced floor to put a tree, so it has to go on the carpet.)
I spent three very pregnant afternoons on my hands and knees plucking needles out of the carpet with a 2-year-old's help. After the last needle was deposited in the trash, I made the decision that our next tree would not be real.
When Christmas came around the next year, I stuck to my plan. I found a nice little artificial tree at a thrift shop for a really nice price. The tree is short enough to sit on top of our old kitchen table (which now serves as a coloring table in a corner of our living room) and, thus, out of reach for crawling children. Plus, it has a squat, full shape like my favorite real Christmas tree - a Scotch pine.
For an artificial tree, it's perfect for us in every way, except one. It just doesn't smell like a real tree.
Our first year with our fake tree, I bought evergreen-scented candles in an attempt to recreate the aroma of a real Christmas tree. This year, I picked up some scented ornaments that claim to be made with real pine oil.
Between the candles and the ornaments, there is definitely a hint of evergreen in the air, but nothing man-made smells quite like a real tree. (It's kind of like trying to make butter cookies with shortening or margarine; they just don't taste the same.)
However, what our tree lacks in fragrance, it makes up for in beauty - especially this year.
After the kids and I assembled the tree and strung it with lights, my allotted time for decorating had elapsed. So I decided the ornaments would have to be hung the next day. Dan and Monika had a different plan.
When I came into the living room later, they announced that they had finished decorating the tree and wanted me to come look.
Indeed, the tree was completely decorated. Perched amongst the branches were an entire collection of matchbox race cars and all of Dan and Monika's plastic toy farm animals. The animals were even organized by species, with the calves and cows adorning adjacent branches.
"They're together so they can be a family," Dan said.
Except it's the only bovine family I've ever seen with one cow, two calves and two bulls. Dan might need to ask Santa for a couple more cows so that his herd can be a little more realistic.
Dan and Monika's decorations weren't what I had in mind, but they're even better. I won't need to unbox all of our traditional ornaments. Dan and Monika are proud of the job they did. And the tree is beautiful in its own farm family way.
On top of that, the time Dan and Monika saved me by decorating the tree themselves will now be used to try something new this year - actually making baked Christmas cookies.
I have a great new recipe for butter cookies from Glen's mom. Since she starts her holiday baking weeks in advance of Christmas, we got to sample some of these delicious treats.
These rollout cookies are made with both real butter and cream cheese. Glen described them as perfectly crisp, yet almost creamy when eaten - even without frosting.
So, if everything goes as planned this weekend, the kids and I will be making cookies, messes and memories in the kitchen.
And, if I had to guess, the cookies will be as creatively decorated as the Christmas tree.