Like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two Christmas trees are decorated exactly alike.
At American Legion Post 60 on Main Street, this truism is evident in an eye-popping format that evokes merriment tinged with melancholy. The eight-foot artificial tree that adorns the lounge is festooned with an array of white ornaments containing photos of present and deceased members of the national veterans' organization.
The idea was hatched four years ago by Josie Lohman and Janice Gray, both of West Laurel.
"We wanted to do something to symbolize our home post," said Lohman, 54, a Texas native and Air Force veteran. "It was a daunting task when we started, because we had to go around and take everybody's picture with my cellphone. I would go home and print them and cut them out in a circle. Then we would roll them up and slide them into the top of the ornament and get pliers and phenagal them to sit up straight."
The ball at the top of the tree features an image of Lee Luby, the post commander.
Gray, 62, would have the task of filling the inside of the ball with tissue paper "so the picture inside won't move." The next step in the process, she said, was for Gray to dip each ball in glitter.
"The back of each ornament, where it used to be white, is covered with white frosted glitter with a gold ring around it," she said.
The ornaments with photos of those members who have died are highlighted with gold with a strip of black.
Lohman and Gray, both longtime daycare operators, said the process of photographing new members is ongoing, having recently shot photos of three new members. Along the way, lessons have been learned. Glass balls, they discovered, are fragile and not reliable. so they switched to plastic.
"And some of the balls mysteriously disappear," Lohman said.
Then there are specific requests for where the ornaments should be placed.
"People say 'I want to be next to my friend,' and we move the ornaments around," Lohman said.
Since the tradition began, Lohman and Gray have been laser-focused about making sure everyone, particularly the "core volunteers" at the post, are displayed on the tree.
"We add between three and seven new ornaments every year. We never take anybody off," Lohman said. While the collection has grown to more than 100 ornaments, there hasn't been a need to replace the original tree with a larger one. Once the holidays are a memory, Lohman and Gray bring the tree down, daintily storing each ornament in what is now two boxes.
The tree, bathed in gold lights, captures magical moments. Carol Worsham is among those mesmerized by its warm glow that encircles the intimate lounge, the central gathering and socializing point at the Legion. Worsham, 64, of North Laurel, said it arouses childhood memories of her hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., cradled in the Catskill Mountains. The images of members past and present, "is like watching old family movies with our projector, which my dad operated," said Worsham, who works as an aide at Fulton Elementary School. "My uncle would chop down a Christmas tree for us while we listened to classic Mitch Miller Christmas songs while we decorated our live, 12-foot fresh pine and sat around the fireplace."
One of those at the post with a straight-on view of the tree is bartender Sandy Griffith.
"I love Christmastime," she said. The tree brings back a flood of memories of the scores of customers Griffith has served, mingled and connected with socially during the decade she's worked at the Legion. "And I think of the ones that have passed. There are a lot of memories on the tree," she said. A West Virginia native, Griffith said her family always bought a live tree at Christmas.
For Griffith, there is another tradition that she keeps going. Like a lot of those who come to the post to relax and unwind and recharge, she can't get enough of the lights and their effect on the soul. "At home, I get up in the morning and turn on the tree lights all day, and I turn them off when I got to bed. I do the same thing here. We open at 12 and I keep the lights on until 11:30 when we close."
Lohman, who ticked off a list of supporting services at the post such as the Woman's Auxiliary and the Sons of the Legion, said every image in the ornaments shows members "who have been there for the Legion in many different ways. It's our family tree.
The tree "makes you realize that you have such an awesome, extended family who was once total strangers," she said.
Gray, who used to have Christmas trees in every room of her house, including on the sink in her bathroom, said the tree brings back memories of her husband of 32 years, Richard, who died on Christmas Day in 2008 at 67. "He absolutely loved decorating, but he hated shopping," she said.