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January Baby, Counting My Presents (Not to Be Confused With Gifts)

01/22/2014 09:33 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

This was my first Christmas tree in five years -- four, if you count the austere Artistic Experiment of having a beefy neighbor with a buzz saw take down that young 7-foot indigenous oak just outside our living room window. Winter-stripped of all but maybe a dozen tiny, crisp tan leaves, the tree was so graceful and attenuated that I envisioned it as seasonal indoor sculpture, with the benefit of saving $85 on the traditional evergreen. Coolly creative, yes, arms plaid with scratches from gingerly hanging ornaments on the rigid skeletal branches to prove it.

But this last, this first bona fide Christmas tree in five years, I named Charlie Brown, for the obvious reason. More bush than tree, its cut base screwed into two crosspieces of wood, perfect for the sofa table in the library, where I planned to take in every sentimental holiday rerun bypassed during the recession. Unlike the 10- to 12-foot monoliths of past Christmases, Charlie Brown only required a half hour, a single string of lights, one 5-foot necklace of Mardi Gras-style jewel toned glass beads and 30 ornaments max. And for Charlie Brown, my old flocked Shiny Brite vintage ornaments, not the fabulous collection of Christopher Radkos which are so big, and so heavy, Charlie Brown would bend pleading under them, needles popping and tinkling. And symbolically as actually, far too extravagant. Charlie Brown, my 2013 tree, really was about the true meaning of Christmas.

No, Radko of Neiman Marcus (what was I thinking, Idiot Ghosts of Christmas Past?) would have been all wrong in 2013 as my chastened return from austerity. Radko in 2013 would have been like stampeding with sharp elbows and credit card into Target yammering "Invictus" while shoving butter cookies into my mouth, none the wiser.

For Christmas 2013 signified the official end of the Great Recession as I experienced it, whatever the baffling official pronouncements that it was actually over in 2009. In recent years, my holiday spirit was at the mercy of not just wartime economic austerity but a bizarre wartime-level cascade of deaths of close loved ones -- and the strange attrition of dozens of, quote, friends, closed quote, clearly terrified that whatever it was I was suffering might be catching: that at any moment, they too might be suddenly outed with generic cereal, and not much else, in the grocery basket.

I always felt, theoretically, that if I had to I could do without everything except a Christmas tree. And here I was, year after year, living my theory as the recession dragged on and the month of December became jinxed -- in 2011, Dad passing away as I kept an all-night vigil at his side; in 2012, a catastrophic power spike blowing out one of my $20,000 Mac systems from hard drive to printer (post-warranty). But it seemed indecent to complain. You have only to watch Mrs. Miniver or the local news to get that the precious hardship of doing without a Christmas tree should, really, be adopted as enlightened tradition in the pure spirit of the season. Whatever you blow to have a dead tree in your home for three or four weeks, given to children who might get a taste of turkey once a year. If that. Yes, I'm considering this.

But still. As a little kid, my obsession was to have our living room all to myself after dinner. Plug in the Christmas tree, turn on Handel's Messiah, then lie down on the carpet on my back almost underneath the tree, inhale its fragrance and watch the kaleidoscopic play of the twinkling colored lights on the ceiling for the entire approximately two hours of the great oratorio, entranced.

The tree ritual, yes. However, I wasn't so holy or precocious as to be above counting my presents.

The trouble with Christmas presents is that, as a kid, buying into the Santa racket sets everybody up for a potential lifetime of psychotherapy -- the annual December 25 disappointment when Santa is forced to do the painful math for, in our case, six kids.

That sheet of notebook paper my little sister Janet and I sat down with at the kitchen table, the day the annual fat Spiegel holiday catalog landed -- and proceeded to fill with line items, numbered in order of priority and helpfully cross-referenced with page numbers -- was a weapon of mass dysfunction. Poor Mom and Dad, Bad Santa for inability to either afford any but three or four of the more modest line items or, besides which, read our minds on spendy non-catalog stuff like the exact same rabbit-fur jacket flaunted by the neighborhood brat. It set me up for seriously fantasizing that Mom and Dad would find a way to come up with those 35 or 40 expectations, for each of us, in some kind of test against which holiday magic would inevitably have to be reconsidered. Dec. 26: Boxing Day to the British perhaps, but for me a very grown-up re-evaluation of what, really, the concepts of magic, economics, expectation and entitlement are all about.

I'm a January baby, and middle child in a big family, forced from the gate to negotiate material magic with real life. Come the new year, I fantasized about Mom and Dad taking me, just me, out for a sophisticated steak dinner. Dad came home late from the road -- it's tough being a salesman in January. When the neighborhood brat showed up in her own Sweet Sixteen red MG, Mom's considered reply to my inevitable question was, "Even if Dad had the money, he wouldn't do that." So I continued trundling to high school in shoes bought with my own minimum-wage money, stayed out of the sun with my fair, bookish English complexion while the rich girls got ski tans, and unwittingly set myself up for the unforeseen gifts of remaining a size 6, unlined skin into my fifties, and ingrained values of earning it, not entitled to it.

Magic is not manipulation. Presents are not gifts. And post-recession, Messiah on still December -- and January, nights -- not a penny involved? Everything the heart of a girl could wish for.