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Sprucy wages

One December when I was all of six, I asked an old newspaper vendor I knew, Simon Helms, if he would give me a job working in the little Christmas tree lot he operated next to his news shack. This gaunt, whiskery man looked down at me and said, ''Bit young, aren't you?''

''I could dust the trees off for you, Simon,'' I said.

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He didn't go for that, but he did give me a job. And a very neat job, too. While he was out driving hard bargains in the lot he let me sit on the high stool in his shack, hawking newspapers. I took in a few cold dimes, but mostly I was free just to gaze at Simon's trees.

The soil of the Christmas tree farm where they'd grown must have been utterly lacking in the Christmas spirit, for they were pathetically scrawny. Their trunks looked thin as reeds and they had hardly any branches on them.

And yet, such was the tugging of children on the sleeves of parents, those tired people smiling despite the dark circles under their eyes and the wallets flat as run-over leaves, that by Christmas Eve all but one tree had been sold.

This last tree was not only the scrawniest but the shortest. It was, in fact, my height, just under three and a half feet. So seldom in this towering world does a six-year-old encounter anything not taller than he is that I felt at once a grateful kinship with this tree.

And besides our mutual shortness, there was an even better reason for kinship. Because the tree was the saddest of all the sad specimens on Simon's lot, it would miss out on the tinsel and candy canes and lights that other Christmas trees enjoyed. And because I was Jewish, I'd already celebrated my holiday, Hanukkah, a little while before. So weren't we both, in our ways, left out of Christmas?

''Please, Simon,'' I begged, ''may I have the last tree? Could it be my wages?''

''That tree isn't worth half your wages, boy,'' he said.

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''I don't care. I don't like money anyway. It's so cold it burns your fingers.''

Simon shook his head, as if he despaired of what would become of me when I grew up, and then paid me off with the tree. He even added a little glass Star of Bethlehem. Going up on tiptoe as he leaned down, I threw my arms about his neck and gave him a smooch on his whisker-rough cheek, for all his bountifulness. Then, wishing him Merry Christmas, I ran home with the tree.

All dusted off and welcomed on my window ledge it stood Christmas morning, mounted in one of my galoshes. And at its top there twinkled, perhaps for the first time in the history of Christmas trees, not only the Star of Bethlehem, but the Star of David. It was as if they were saying, in their oneness of light, that whatever holiday you were left out of, you were never left out of God.

Called to behold ''the most beautiful Jewish Christmas tree in the world,'' my Orthodox family peered warily around the corner of my doorway. There was a moment of star-dimming silence. Then, their eyes filling with soft smiles, they stepped into the brightening room.

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