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No last-minute tree for the Joneses

Little Solomon asks for something besides a present.

LAST WEEK, for the first time in 13 years, we purchased a Christmas tree before the vendors reached the bottom of their collective barrels.

The six-foot plus Fraser Fir we plucked from the racks at Produce Junction was tall and strong. It was fragrant and moist. It cost half as much as the trees we bought from street corner shysters in the dark years when we waited until right before Christmas.

Yes, those were bad times, indeed. I can remember purchasing trees that were dry enough to be used as kindling for a bonfire. They were so thirsty, in fact, that if Smokey the Bear had walked in and seen us placing lights on them, he would have mauled us for being stupid enough to bring forest fires home.

There were years when we purchased trees that were so pitiful, they made Charlie Brown's look like a California Redwood. Other years we purchased trees that had been out in the rain for days, and when we got them home, they smelled like it. In particularly desperate years, we dealt with shady tree-hustlers who pulled Fraser Firs from beneath long coats like Lenny from "Good Times."

This year, however, our children were fed up with the foolishness. They'd spent too many Decembers watching us shuffle about in confusion. They'd seen us wait for paychecks, then scramble for last-minute gifts. And somewhere between the moments of mall madness, they'd watched with disapproval as we propped half-dead zombie trees against the living room wall.

Finally, they decided to raise their voices, and 9-year-old Little Solomon led the way. Perhaps it was the nonstop Black Friday commercials, brainwashing him into believing that we should've been ready for Christmas back in March. Or maybe it was the kids from school, who convinced him that he needed to have his Christmas activities lined up by November.

Whatever the reason for his actions, the boy took a stand. He was asking us to get a Christmas tree on Thanksgiving night, well before he finished licking the turkey from his fingers.

"Can we get the tree tonight?" he asked.

I wasn't sure I'd heard him right, so I asked him to repeat himself, and repeat himself he did. He repeated himself so often that I thought I'd awakened in an episode of "The Twilight Zone," starring a 9-year-old villain who can turn a simple question into a weapon.

At first I thought it was amusing, but in the days following Thanksgiving, the boy turned up in the weirdest places, always with the same question on his lips.

One morning I came out of the bathroom, and he was standing there, a darkened silhouette with a strange mist swirling about his feet. I wasn't sure what I was seeing so I squinted through the shadows. That's when I spotted him, and in a chipper voice that belied his zombielike appearance, he said it: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

That same day I arrived at the Center City lot where I park for work. When I got out of the car I could've sworn he was standing there. In a mocking voice, he said it again: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

I blinked and he disappeared, only to show up again when I walked into my office: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

Horrified, I shut my eyes tightly and shook my head vigorously. Thankfully, he disappeared. But then I turned on my laptop, and the screen was filled with his smiling face: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

In the days that followed, his sudden appearances became more frequent, more persistent and more maddening.

I opened the dishwasher and there he was, sitting between dirty plates: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

I lifted the trash-can lid and he jumped out from beneath a candy wrapper: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

I opened the refrigerator for a midnight snack and he popped out from the vegetable crisper: "Can we get the tree tonight?"

By the time we actually purchased the tree I was shaking uncontrollably, virtually begging the man at the store to take my money before my sanity completely crumbled.

Now that the tree is up and fully trimmed, however, I'm glad the boy bugged me. Let's hope he's just as zealous about helping me to take the tree down when Christmas Day is over. Otherwise we might run into the other problem we've struggled with over the years - harboring a long dead Christmas tree in our living room on Valentine's Day.