Life is full of contradictions and so is our Christmas tree.
Every year my family puts decorations on the tree that look good enough to eat. Then we spend the early days of the holiday season warning each other "Don't Eat the Tree!"
We wrap ropes of popcorn around our tree. The ropes make the tree look fuller. They give the tree symmetry. They work so well covering up bare spots that I am considering making a headband out of popcorn and making it a regular part of my new "look."
Stringing the popped corn together with a needle and thread is tedious work. Especially for guys like me who are challenged by needlework. For years I have silently competed with my wife as the two of us sat in the family room, watching television and stringing popcorn. I wanted my string to be longer than hers. It never was.
I tried changing the size of the needle. I tried changing the thickness of the thread. I tried cheating, staying up late and making extra strings of popcorn which I would secretly add to my string during our competitive sessions. It didn't matter, she always beat me.
So my chief popcorn responsibility has shifted from stringing to popping. After many sessions using both the microwave oven and the old popcorn pan, I have come to the following conclusion: stale, unbuttered popcorn makes the best rope.
I don't know why. Maybe it is because after the popped corn has sat overnight in a big pot -- I dump mine in a big blue roaster usually used to cook the turkey -- the kernels get tougher. Maybe the popcorn skin dries up like those ladies on the TV ads who don't use moisturizers. Or maybe it is because after popcorn has been sitting out for a day, the stringers are more likely to put the stale corn on the thread than to toss it in their mouths. All I know is the older the popcorn, the better the string.
Some people mix cranberries in with popcorn on their string. It does make a better-looking string. But using cranberries also makes it harder to save the string to use the next year. Cranberries shrivel and lose their looks much faster than popcorn.
We hang little peppermint candy canes on our tree. This presents me with a dilemma. I worry about how the candy canes should be dressed. On the one hand, it makes sense that the canes should stay clothed in the plastic wrappers they got at the candy factory. That way when they fall to the living room floor -- as they always do -- the damage is contained. But the plastic wrapping looks tacky. So usually I bow to classic tastes, and hang naked candy canes on the tree.
One more note about decorating with candy canes. Early in the holiday season, everybody in the family will sneak in and swipe a candy cane off the tree. But by Christmas Day, the appeal has gone. That is when it is time to invite other families over to swipe candy from your tree, and that is when you start to use candy canes as swizzle sticks.
Finally there is the practice of hanging decorative cookies on the Christmas tree. The truth is we don't do this every year. Some years we don't get around to it. That's the way the ornament crumbles.
Speaking of crumbling, we have found that the cookies that last the longest are the ones that are inedible. They are made from a recipe using only salt, flour and water which produces a dough that is terrific for making artistic shapes, but tastes terrible. This recipe comes from the Louisville Times, a newspaper where I used to work. The newspaper has since disappeared. The cookies we make with this recipe last for years.
Inedible Decorative Dough
1 cup salt
4 cups flour
1 1/2 cups water
Dissolve salt in water. Mix in flour using wooden spoon. Knead until the dough is smooth and uniformly soft. Roll it out and cut it into cookie shapes. After cutting cookies, make a hole near the top of each cookie with the end of a straw. Baking time varies with size and thickness of "ornaments." Basically we bake cookies that are about 1/4 -inch thick in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, then check them every 5 minutes or so.
When the cookies cool, decorate them with frosting. Tie the cookies to the tree by running pieces of yarn through the holes made by the straw.