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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace about town

art708

I think Christmas is really all about treats. Not that this is a bad thing; on the contrary, I would be most happy on an all-fudge-and-eggnog diet. I attended a (very glittery) party last night where they had an open bar, and many people were imbibing many delectable cocktails. But I found a box of fudge lying around, and did my best to consume most of it. I'll take a piece of fudge over a martini any day.

I make, by the way, amazingly delicious fudge myself. My secret is an old "fantasy fudge" recipe from the back of the marshmallow whip jar; this particular recipe calls for lots more whip than the usual recipes, so my fudge is extra creamy and melt-in-your-mouth. Ostensibly, I make cookies for others, but when there's fudge in the house I'm drawn to it like a very large magnet. So, in order to not gain three hundred pounds in the week leading up to Christmas, I don't make fudge at all anymore.

But if there's an open box of fudge in my sight, look out . . .

Other party attendees were undoubtedly feeling hung over this morning. I realize my headache was because of a severe sugar overload.

Sugar overload is always a looming problem at my parents' house. Right now part of the holiday centerpiece is an abundant sprinkling of foil-wrapped Christmas chocolates.

My parents always have a fair amount of stuff decorating the dining room table. Throughout the year a table runner traverses the length of it, plus lots of candles, enough salt & pepper shakers for everybody to have one to themselves, fancy toothpick holders, etc. In the center is a focal point, like an arrangement of Matchbox cars, or an elaborate porcelain scene of a shepherd standing under a fruit tree. Or sometimes there are both the cars and the scene, with maybe a bowl of floating candles and flowers thrown in.

But at Christmas things get wild. The display includes gold candlesticks encircled by gold flowers, fat antique-looking Santa and mini snowman candles, antique ornaments in the shape of seals balancing balls, and the dozens of the aforementioned chocolates. The crowning decoration is something pretty spectacular, I must admit, even though it happens to be something I made.

It's a Christmas ashtray.

You're right, it is a little unusual for an ashtray to be the spotlight of a dining table. But it's an unusual ashtray.

I made it in 10th grade art class. Our assignment was to make a gaudy pottery ashtray. I can't believe a teacher actually assigned such a thing, but I have proof, and it's sitting on my parents' table. I'm sure teachers today never, ever tell their students to make ashtrays, gaudy or otherwise.

Actually, maybe it was just that particular teacher who was so freewheeling in his tacit approval of smoking accoutrements. Because in a junior high art class, we had to make something complicated with a piece of metal, blackening it, and pressing an image into it. I wanted to make Groucho Marx. And naturally, he had a cigar in his mouth. Because he was Groucho Marx. But this art teacher said, "You need to get rid of this," wiggling her fingers like she was holding a cigar with great disdain. I don't know why I didn't say "Groucho Marx is inseparable from his cigar," but instead I did what she told me. I've never been so good at questioning authority.

I took it home, and Mom was horrified the teacher made me change my creation, so she had me put the cigar back in. Mom has never been afraid to question authority.

But I digress. The Christmas ashtray -- you'd have to inspect it carefully to see that it would actually function as an ashtray. It's a very elaborate gingerbread house made of clay; the rooftop is lined with chocolate-covered cherries, the house is edged with gumdrops. And on a window sill are two indentations to rest a cigarette. Smoke from the cigarette can curl right up through the chimney, and there are two more cigarette indentations on the top of the chimney.

Pretty clever, if I do say so myself. We don't usually mention the fact that it's an ashtray, unless I might happen to be at Mom and Dad's house at Christmas, maybe with a new man I've brought to introduce to them, and one parent or the other will tell him I made the gingerbread house, and it's really not a centerpiece, it's an ashtray! There are worse stories they could relate (and they eventually get to them, too). Because like I said, it is a pretty cool-looking thing, even though it's an ashtray.

So, peace on earth and all of that, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas (with no snow), but don't expect any fudge from me.

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