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It’s more complicated than it looks. First you must air pop the popcorn. There can be no buttery or oily residue on strings of popcorn and cranberries. Then, you must thread the needle, making the thread long enough to make a good-sized strand on the Christmas tree, but not too long, because it will turn into a tangled mess. Also, the needle must not be too thick, or it will break the popcorn kernels. Once you’ve doubled the thread through the needle, tie the ends off by rolling them over your finger with your thumb to create a knot at the bottom.  Next, pour fresh cranberries into a bowl. Finally, you are ready to start stringing your popcorn and cranberry garland.

Even the stringing process is more complicated than it looks. Take care not to stab your finger with the needle. You learn to put the needle through the popcorn in exactly the best spot, so you don’t run into hard parts of the kernel. If you’re like me, you will choose a pattern. This year I did three popcorns to one cranberry. The cranberries are easier to string, but they are also more expensive. Some people, like my husband, prefer no pattern at all. They just go with what feels right, and every strand is different than the previous one.

Once you’ve completed a strand, you hang it on the Christmas tree. I like to start at the top and work my way down to the bottom. But not too close to the bottom, or your pets will not be able to resist the snack that is so close to their reach, especially if your dog loves popcorn like mine does. But for some reason, he knows that the popcorn/cranberry strands are “not for dogs.”

The process of stringing cranberries and popcorn is not for everyone. It requires a lot of time and patience. But every year, I string popcorn and cranberries for our tree. It takes hours, usually over a couple of days. I watch old Christmas movies while I’m stringing. Some years it takes three movies to get it all done. This year was probably only two since I learned a trick to skip the back of the tree since it’s against the wall anyway.

When my daughter was young, I could talk her into stringing a strand or two. When my husband and I were first married, he gave it a try for a couple of years. Over time, they both lost interest. My husband is happy to watch the movies with me while I’m stringing popcorn, but he’s just not into the popcorn/cranberry project, and he gets frustrated with pricked fingers. My daughter is in college now, and stringing popcorn is not on her list of priorities at this time.

Why do I keep doing this every year? It all started with my mom. When I was a kid, she did so much to make a homemade Christmas for my sister and me. When we were very young, she taught us to string Fruit Loops on yarn, using masking tape wrapped around the end of the yarn instead of a needle. When we got a little older, we would string cranberries and popcorn in our little living room with the shag carpet and the box TV in the corner of the room. We would watch the Peanuts Christmas Special or Mickey’s Christmas Carol while we were working. My mom would also sew matching Christmas dresses for us and hand crochet hair ribbons every Christmas when we were kids, and we would also make sugar and gingerbread cookies together.

Now that I think about it, our homemade Christmas goes back even further. My grandma, my mom’s mom, would have us over for turkey dinner, or she would come to our house for dinner. Both my mom and my grandma could cook a delicious feast. My grandma made the best homemade rolls and cinnamon rolls anyone had ever tasted. And everything that comes out of my mom’s kitchen is a delicious masterpiece.

So, that is why I do it. Every year, despite the time and effort it takes, I sit down and string popcorn and cranberries, even if I end up doing it by myself. There is something therapeutic about the process of putting the needle through each piece and creating something beautiful. While I’m working, I’m listening to the Christmas movies I’ve seen a hundred times, and I’m thinking about all our old Christmases and all the people, especially the ones who are no longer here.

My family’s Christmases look a lot different than the ones from my childhood days. We’ve celebrated Christmas without my sister Jen for 21 years now, since we lost her in 2002. Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for many years now, too. And we celebrate Christmas early with my mom and stepdad because they are snowbirds now and spend their Christmases on the beach in Nicaragua.

But those traditions that were started even before I was born give me comfort in the holiday season. I look forward to enjoying my Christmas tree for the next month, and those popcorn and cranberry strands that adorn the tree seem to weave all our Christmases together, and that is something beautiful that brings me joy during this season every year.