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A Christmas tree lands a second starring role

Once Christmas is over and the ornaments have been packed away, you would think - rightly - that the Christmas tree would be next to go. Its moment of glory gone, it is of no more interest than yesterday's dinner. It should be dragged out to the trash or given to the chipper and made into mulch for the roses.

But this did not happen to one particular tree.

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The woman of the house, a gardener, wanted to give it another life. She didn't quite know how she'd do this. While she thought about it, she put the tree behind the house to hibernate under the coming snows. Strands of tinsel left on the tree wriggled free of the snow and marked its resting spot like flags.

Several mouse families snuggled in under its branches and were probably well pleased to have found such snug quarters.

By spring, the woman knew how she would use the tree. She dug a hole and stuck it right smack in the middle of the garden. Then she scattered pea seeds under and around it. She thought how lovely it would look with green vines climbing up it and white blossoms hanging from it like ornaments. It would be as if the tree were alive again. It certainly looked as if it were so, still fresh and green after its winter sleep.

While she waited for the peas to pop through the soil, the woman laid out rows of spinach, beets, and marigolds. A southerly wind whistled gently through the poplars, a welcome change from the harsh winter roaring of its northern brother. The air was sweet and crisp, filled to bursting with bird song of all kinds. The birds were all terribly busy and letting the world know about it.

The woman noticed a robin hovering around the edge of the garden, then making a short quick trip into the heart of the Christmas tree. She flew out, then returned, again and again, carrying long strings of dried grasses, stalks, and leaves in her beak. The woman stayed on her knees, planting, and making no sudden moves. She could not believe what she was seeing.

The foolish bird was building a nest in the Christmas tree!

With the wealth of strong, live maples and oaks so near and welcoming, why would a mother bird choose a dead tree in the middle of a human's garden - a human with cats, no less?

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Whatever her reason, the robin settled without fuss into her new home, well protected by the surround of greenery. The woman, despite her concern, was secretly pleased that the bird had chosen her garden for a nursery. She tried to keep her distance, but one day, when her curiosity had grown too strong to contain, she carefully parted the branches, just for a peek. She found the mother robin staring directly, sternly, unflinchingly, back at her.

"Oh, I'm sorry," the woman said, backing away. "I promise not to bother you again." Only once did she return to the nest, to discover three pale blue eggs on the ground among the emerging pea vines. Something, someone - a cat? the mother bird? - had tipped the nest and the eggs had fallen out. They were perfect, unbroken, beautiful ovals.

The woman picked them up in gloved hands, righted the nest, and slipped the eggs back into it. Would the mother reject them?

Summer arrived, hot, lush, and fruitful. From within the Christmas tree came a happy ruckus of cheeping, chattering, and scolding. The eggs had hatched into a trio of feisty singers. The woman was as proud as a new grandmother, but she still kept her distance.

Soon, as happens every year, the bird song was joined by a chorus of crickets, and later the farewell honking of geese. The air turned shivery. Maple leaves fell in a golden rain. The Christmas tree's needles turned brown and brittle and fell, leaving a skeleton of stark branches yearning toward the sky.

The tree held no more secrets. Near the top hung a small eight-pointed silver star that had eluded discovery when the tree was taken down. And in the center, firmly set in a fork of branches, sat the robin's nest. The robin had formed it in a heart shape. Woven among the wisps of curly grasses were bits of tinsel that glinted now in the sun. The nest was bereft of tenants, for the robins had long ago flown off to wherever robins go.

The woman brought the treasures inside. The star went on the new Christmas tree, in his old spot near the top. The nest went under the tree as the manger in the Nativity scene, even though the baby Jesus was so small and the nest so big, he seemed swallowed up in it.

The woman solved that problem by adding other members of the stable family: some sleeping lambs, a cat, two doves, and a chicken. Now the little porcelain Jesus, swaddled in his porcelain blanket, lay snug and comforted in the company of friends.

The old tree still stood in the garden, billowed in snowdrifts. On Christmas Eve, the woman hung small balls of suet and peanut butter and thistle seed from its bony limbs for feathered pilgrims who might be hungry.

And faraway in a warmer land, where supple leaves still dressed the trees, surely a quartet of robins sang carols.