Holiday shopper Ruth Ward carefully examines each ornament, from the fire hydrant perched in the treetop to the dog biscuits and pictures of animals hanging from the branches.
L The tree is a creation of the Churchville Veterinary Clinic.
Mrs. Ward, a resident of Bel Air, moves on to check out the next one, unsure yet of her choice for the best decorated tree.
The trees are part of the second annual Festival of Trees at Harford Mall, a project that benefits the Steppingstone Museum in Havre de Grace.
Businesses and community groups agree to decorate a tree, which is supplied by the museum, for an entry fee of $200. Shoppers vote for their favorites by dropping quarters into containers next to each tree.
The tree that gets the most money by Jan. 8 will be declared the winner, and its sponsor will receive the honor of having the tree displayed at the center of the mall during next year's holiday season. That spot is occupied this year by a tree decorated last year by the Churchville Veterinary Clinic.
"This is a wonderful way for businesses that generally don't have the opportunity for visual promotion to let the public know what they do," said Alan Anderson, the project's chairman and a museum board member.
Mr. Anderson proposed the Festival of Trees as a museum fund-raiser last year after seeing a similar project in Pittsburgh.
"This is so interesting, so wonderful, so clever," Mrs. Ward exclaims as she continues to carefully judge each tree before casting her vote.
Deejay Jeff Thompson's tree is topped with a microphone and compact discs and musical notes are its ornaments; pill boxes and medicine containers adorn a tree by the Medicine Shoppe; garlands created from penny wrappers and pictures of bank managers on $20 bills are part of a tree decorated by First Virginia Bank. Anderson-Mayer Photography's choice of ornaments includes wedding bells and pictures of brides.
Kefauver Lumber Co. decked a tree with light bulbs, a white chain garland, washers and drawer pulls. Dr. Leo V. Trail, a periodontist, decorated his tree with dental floss, tooth brushes, and shiny Christmas balls painted with happy white teeth.
The Rock Spring Village retirement home's tree is decorated with heart-shaped frames holding pictures of residents on the tree branches.
This year's festival includes 15 trees, but Mr. Anderson said that next year there will be room for 40 -- 20 on each side of the mall's south hallway adjacent to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Montgomery Ward. About $5,000 was raised for the museum last year, Mr. Anderson said.
"Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors -- BGE, Woolworth & Co. and Jarrettsville Federal Savings & Loan Association -- who provided the seed money to purchase trees and lights -- we had no expenses, only profits," he added.
Proceeds from the Festival of Trees help the museum survive the winter months, said Linda Noll, Steppingstone's director.
"This is a time when we don't have any other source of income, but we still have to pay the electric bills," she said.
Steppingstone Museum, a private, nonprofit organization located in Susquehanna State Park near Havre de Grace, depends on dues and donations to finance operations and preserve life on a farm in the 19th century.
"Our buildings reflect rural life in the 1880 to 1920 time period," Ms. Noll explained.
Besides a decorated farm house, museum buildings consist of blacksmith, carpenter, decoy carver, cooper, dairy, farm and garden tool shops and a weaving room. A canning house is expected to open in the near future.
The museum, which is open for tours from May to October, sponsors several functions throughout the year, including a children's game day, harvest festival and Christmas Open House.
"Participants in the Festival of Trees displayed decorating ingenuity," said Mr. Anderson. "Each tree is an inspiration on how to decorate at a low cost . . . all that's needed is a little imagination."
Mrs. Ward has completed her tour of trees, but she finds it difficult to pick a winner.
"They are all so beautiful and cleverly decorated, it's really hard to choose," she sighs before pointing to her eventual favorite, a beautiful tree glowing in gold and decorated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Angel Moroni sits in the treetop watching over branches laden with hand-made ornaments and Bible verses.
"It's definitely the most beautiful tree, and so much work went into it," said Mrs. Ward.