The tree is standing and all lit up. Now comes the fun. Cat number one races to the tree, grabs the base with a manic expression and begins to leap and tear in circles around the foot of the tree.

Cat number two takes this craziness one step further and shoots halfway up the tree...where it begins to bend and the lights dim.

But, no worries, here comes the toddler to grab the end of the string of lights and drag it--along with the tree--over to the outlet. The tree lights up. The toddler grins ear to ear like a happy hamster. Then, 'POP!" Out comes the plug and here come the tears. "I broke it, Momma! I broke it!"

Now the tree is stabilized again and a few bulbs hang haphazardly, but doesn't that angel look pretty at the top of the tree?

The angel smiles and executes a perfect nose-dive and smashes her porcelain head to smithereens on the hardwood floor. Three cats spring in to scatter the pieces to the far ends of the living room.

Mom jumps in with her broom and dustpan and quickly takes care of the matter, but now the tree is making a crunching noise. A peek behind the tree reveals the toddler scarfing down wrapped candy canes as quickly as possible.

"Hey! I want a candy cane, too!" comes a chorus from the older children behind you. "Why does the baby get candy and we don't?"

"Because I love the baby more than you guys."

You put the baby in the playpen and fish the plastic candy wrappings from his mouth between bites and wails of indignation. The older children sit happily at the table with mugs of hot cocoa and candy canes to use as spoons.

You try to puzzle out which branch connects where. Will the tree ever look full again? Or will it continue to look as if it weathered a cyclone?

Your mother says: "You should have gotten a real tree."

"This is a real tree. A real artificial tree." You try to explain for the umpteenth time how you are allergic to pine and how the last time you had a 'real' tree, your throat closed up and you couldn't breathe. Your doctor calls this anaphylaxis- a severe allergic reaction.

Your mother says: "Just eat honey. It's tradition to have a real tree."

"Thanks, but I'll pass on the traditional old wives 'cure' and subsequent hospitalization this year."

Somehow you'll muddle through the holidays depriving your children of knowing the joy of a real tree. You hang the last bulb and tuck in the garland. It looks good. So good, in fact, that it could be a real tree.

The dog sure thinks so.

"Oooh, the dog peed on the tree!"

"Who let the dog in?!"

"But he's part of the family, too, Mom."

Gee, and the tree has only been standing for one hour.

Only 552 hours until Christmas.

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