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Bringing Christmas spirit aim of these seasonal workers

The approach of the holiday season requires a lot more work — and a lot more workers for this busy time of year.

Some seasonal workers are temporary. They pick up the extra duties in the department stores and small shops, stocking shelves, helping customers and ringing up all those sales.

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Some seasonal workers do their part to make the season bright. They are regular workers — both employed and volunteer — who take on extra duties to bring holiday cheer to the community.

It's all in a day's work. But it's more than that, too, for these four seasonal workers.

Trimming the trees

Think trimming one Christmas tree a year is a chore? Imagine decorating one tree every day from August to Halloween. Valerie Harlan, of Timonium, has had that job at Valley View Farms for 30 years —and she looks forward to it every year.

"We have fun doing it," she said.

Day after day, she unpacks boxes of ornaments, ribbons and garlands chosen for each tree — each tree has its own theme —and goes to work figuring out how to place all the ornaments, drape the ribbon and festoon the garland. "We make it up as we go along," she said. "We see what we've got and we put it together."

The themes and decorations are purchased every year by the store's buyers Kathy Foard and Joe Gober. It's up to Harlan to turn their ideas into reality.

The challenge? Making each tree look different.

Her favorite this year is the tall gold-trimmed tree. "It turned out very well," she said.

Harlan has some help to decorate the dozens of trees that fill Valley View with holiday glow. She counts on fellow employee Donna Steele and her own daughter Colleen, who has worked at Valley View for three years.

She has her techniques for getting the trees looking just right: lights first, then garland, ornaments hung in diamond and triangle patterns with accent balls on the tips of branches. "It gives it more depth," she said.

After Harlan gets all these trees trimmed, she decorates her own family tree. It is, she said, "nothing like these. Plain and simple." She likes the big C9 lights and Old World glass ornaments with a little tinsel garland.

Trends have come and gone through the years. Tinsel garland, for example, has given way to ribbon. Icicles still sell but not like they used to.

Snowflakes and angels never go out of style. And neither do train decorations. "People with little children, they always go for the train ornaments," she said.

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This year, Eiffel tower ornaments were popular. And the pink and blue baby tree ornaments sold so well the little tree is nearly bare.

The display at Valley View attracts busloads of visitors — and their reactions are part of the reward for all that tree-trimming. "You can just tell they are enjoying it," Harlan said. "I'm happy to see them come and admire the trees."

Some families come every year and take photos for their Christmas cards here. "We encourage people to take pictures," Harlan said.

Harlan started working at Valley View after her graduation from Towson High School 33 years ago. She met her husband Jim when he worked in the shop during college. Their five children have all worked here. Two, Colleen and Grace, work there now.

The day after Christmas all of the ornaments go on sale at half-price. It used to draw such a crowd, the line snaked through the parking lot and people even slept on the parking lot to be here for the 6 a.m. opening.

"It's just like a busy weekend day now," she said.

All that Christmas glory — work that took more than 10 weeks to create — disappears in a week. The trees are nearly stripped of their ornaments on Dec. 26. Even some of the trees are sold. The rest get inventoried and stored for next year in just a few days.

It's all fun, Harlan said. "I get paid to do it."

Caring for the animals

Cricket and Violet calmly munch hay unruffled by the whirl of York Road traffic and preparations for the coming holidays.

This is the second year for the alpacas to spend the weeks before Christmas at Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville.

And they are as docile as they seem, according to Bob Salmond, the green goods manager who coordinates care and feeding during their stay. "They get a little feisty at feeding time," he said.

Alpacas are the latest in a long line of animal guests who stay for the holiday season at Watson's on York Road.

There have been reindeer, a collection of barnyard animals, white tail deer and camels.

The camels first came when they were only 6 months old the first year but they kept growing and so did the pen where they stayed. Finally when they weighed more than 1,500 pounds they were too big to keep, according to Salmond.

The alpacas have simple needs. "It's real easy," he said. Water and a good supply of sweet-smelling hay keep them content. Every morning they get a grain treat.

"We take them for a walk every once in a while to stretch their legs," he added.

Whoever is working in the greens department when the animals need something can take care of them. "It's just the luck of the draw," he said.

Salmond builds their pen and puts up the wooden cut-out stable scene in the weeks before the animals arrive for their stay between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The animal display started before Salmond started working at Watson's 22 years ago. "It goes way back," he said. "It's a tradition."

Along the way there have been memorable moments. "No tragedies," Salmond added.

Reindeer calves came one year and were so young the staff had to bottle-feed them.

Once, before Salmond's time, a white tail deer was shot with an arrow. It was rushed to the veterinarian. "He saved it," said Salmond, a Lutherville resident.

Once, police were called when a reindeer was discovered running down York Road. "That was a fiasco," Salmond said. "We got him back."

The alpacas come from a Baltimore County farm but in the past animals came from out of state. The camels and reindeer came from Arizona. Bringing animals from out of state had requirements of their own, including permits and veterinarian checks.

The animals always draw a lot of young visitors —including Salmond's own daughter and son. "My kids have been coming here for years," he said.

Taking photos with Santa

Mike Newman has seen it all: the child in awe of the man in the red suit, the baby who wouldn't wake up, and the toddler who wouldn't stop crying.

"You're never going to win that argument," he said of the 2-year-old in tears. So he shoots it for all it's worth. "You shoot for the four Ts: tongues, tonsils, teeth and tears," he said. "You just start firing the camera."

And if they don't stop, and they usually don't, Newman noted, he'll ask Santa to cry, too. Then he hands over the finished portrait and tells the dad to tuck that away until the child is a big football player in high school to remind him of his younger days.

"They really are cute," Newman said.

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And then he admited, "Even I cried for Santa when I was a little boy."

His own daughters sat on Santa's lap for a portrait for many years and this year he had a special subject, his first granddaughter Hadley, who is 9 months old.

"She came up and gave me the best smile," he said.

He loves taking every picture. "It's memories I'll never forget," he said.

And, judging from the thick photo albums his mother keeps, he knows how valuable those pictures with Santa are. "My mom treasures those photographs," he said.

Newman, of Hanover, has taking thousands of children's pictures with Santa at Kenilworth mall in the past 24 Christmas seasons— about 3,000 families come each year. He and his partner Mike Kidd, of Catonsville, spend all year planning for these six weeks of photo sessions.

"We start planning Santa Claus back in July," Newman said. In January, though, he starts looking at new photography to see how they can improve their work.

"For me, it's a change-of-pace," Newman said. "It helps bolster the Christmas spirit in me."

His partner is usually holding a camera but for "The Santa Experience," he's an elf who talks to the children, helps parents pick out the best photo and makes sure each family has a good experience. "I don't mind being an elf," Kidd said. "It's all about the kids."

All year long they shoot weddings, team photos, athletic events and portraits but the best time of year is spent in front of Santa's big red chair. Newman started shooting Santa pictures at the Burlington Coat Factory in Odenton. He owned the Santa photo kiosk in the Mall in Columbia for 10 years before moving to Kenllworth.

Newman has seen lots of changes in photography technology in the last three decades but one thing never changes. When Santa arrives and sits in his big chair at 11 a.m., mothers and fathers are queued up with their children dressed up and excited or fearful, or awed by the man in red. "They still come," Newman said.

Decorating the church

Christmas decorations at Woodbrook Baptist Church are simple. White lights twinkle on the trees, garlands and wreaths. All the poinsettias this year are white. The tiny, hand-painted figures of the manger scene are placed around the sanctuary during Advent, making their way to the stable to the left of the altar by Christmas Eve. The candles of the Advent wreath count down the weeks before Christmas.

The sanctuary which has seen Christmases since 1995 — although the congregation has worshipped together for much longer — lends itself to this simplicity with its brick walls and simple cross.

But for the full impact, says Barbara Gross, who leads the church decorating every year you have to come Christmas Eve.

Worshippers form a circle around the sanctuary to sing "Silent Night." They light candles to brighten the space where the overhead lights have been dimmed. All those white lights add to the celebration.

"You can see the glow growing around the room," she said.

Gross is a volunteer decorator but for the past 20 years she has been a teacher in the church's Woodbrook Early Education Center where she teaches 3-year-olds. She offered to decorate the sanctuary eight years ago. Sometimes she tackled the job alone. Now she worries that arthritis might keep her from reprising her role next year. She is thankful for all the people who came to hang the garland and wreaths and put all those lights on the trees in time for this year's First Sunday of Advent.

"Everybody did a good job. I'm so proud of them," she said.

Gross grew up in the church. Her parents were married here. Her grandparents worshipped here. Her daughter now brings her own child. "This is my home," Gross said.

Little touches around the church remind members of the congregation of past events and people. A tiny tree in the narthex is filled with ornaments decorated with Christian symbols. Gross' aunt, Florence Denham, organized the creation of all those ornaments, stitched in counted cross stitch with golden thread and framed in Mason jar lids. The nativity figurines belonged to Toney and Palmer Gillenwater, who used to take care of the grounds and cook at the Wednesday night dinners.

Things like that make the decorations even more meaningful, Gross said.

The church brought its tradition of an enormous tree when it moved from Eutaw Street to Stevenson Lane but it faded away.

With the donation of an 18-foot tree this year, the tradition is making its way back, Gross said. This year the tree, ablaze in white lights, dominates the fellowship hall. During the coming year, members of the church will make ornaments decorated with Christian designs to hang on the tree next Christmas. "It's going to be splendid," she said.

"I love this job," she said. "This is done with love."

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