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LAST-MINUTE CRAFTS TO SALVAGE A BLAND HOLIDAY DISPLAY

With so little time left before Christmas, I assume that you are not going to start a project that requires too much time or money. However, if you're like me, you are willing to put some extra effort into a special decoration for the table. Here are some ideas that can be done at the last minute.

To begin, take a peek at the featured little trees. These pretty table accents require neither time nor craft skills, yet the results are smashing: A full and leafy tree holds sparkling golden pears and a turquoise-colored bird.

Each little tree is made from fresh greenery (harvested from a live bush outside my home), but you can use any leafy branches you can find, whether in your own back yard or at the florist. Also, you can use the stems of silk foliage, if they are available. The only difference is that trees made from fresh foliage have a shorter display life, which can be extended by first lining the pot with plastic wrap and lightly soaking the oasis with water to provide a water source for the live stems.

The construction principle for making either version of this tree is the same. All you do is collect three or four leafy stems, strip the leaves off the bottom third, leaving a bare stem, then bind the stems together to form a trunk. Last, you push the trunk into dry foam that is lodged in a plain terra-cotta pot and decorate the tree. That's it!

Whether you make one large tree for the center of your table, or several little ones to use as table accents next to each place setting, arranging them as you might imagine a little forest, the directions, in principle, are the same.

For decoration, I used plastic fruit and a few plastic birds all magically transformed with glitter, but if you don't have such decorations on hand, don't worry. You can substitute any other decoration, such as little pine cones, nuts, berries or small Christmas ornaments (plucked at the last minute from your tree). You can also hang costume jewelry (single earrings) or a string of beads, or simply unfurl narrow ribbon, draping it across the branches for a kind of garland effect. Or if you prefer an entirely natural look, leave the tree bare, scattering votive candles on the table around the base of the pot to create a festive glow.

Just in case you really are at the 11th hour, and you don't have the time to make a little tree this holiday, here are a few absolutely last-minute ideas, should you find yourself foraging for a quick eye-catching centerpiece minutes before you sit down to dinner.

Pile ornaments in a large glass or silver bowl, then stand every available candle you have in candlesticks in a random cluster around the bowl.

Lay greens on the center of the table, surrounded by a ring of fruit: Mix pears and plums, grapes and apricots; unfurl a gold or hunter green or red ribbon through the fruit.

Take out your collectibles (whether little boxes, glassware, teddy bears, antique toys, figurines or some other favorite objects) and line them up in the middle of the table; on a separate long strip of paper, write sentiments about the holiday. Mention the names of the guests at the table or copy the lines from Christmas cards, then unfurl the strip like a ribbon, weaving it around the standing figurines or other mementos.

Estimated working time: 20 minutes (for one tree)

Estimated cost: $5 to $8 (decorated with fruit and bird)

Materials

To make one 10-inch-high tree, you will need:

For tree:

3 leafy branches, each approximately 10 inches long

Green floral tape

Medium gauge wire

Terra-cotta pot, approximately 4 inches high and 4 1/2 inches in diameter

Plastic wrap

Floral foam

Junky scissors

Knife

Decoration as desired

Optional:

3 small plastic pears

1 small plastic bird

Micro-glitter:

for pear: gold, apple green

for birds: gold and medium turquoise

White glue

Leafy branches, (from florist, $2); medium-gauge wire, 39 cents; wire, 50 cents; floral tape, 49 cents; block dry foam, 39 cents; terra-cotta pot, 49 cents; plastic wrap, 59 cents.

Optional: plastic pears, 25 cents; plastic bird, 29 cents; micro-glitter, $2.40: gold, green, turquoise; white glue, 29 cents.

Directions

1. To prepare pot, lay block of foam on flat work surface.

2. Invert pot and lay on surface of foam, pressing down to create imprint.

3. Use knife to carve foam around marked circle, creating rough cylinder.

4. Shave sides to create tapered cylinder (or shape of pot).

5. To prepare pot, line with plastic wrap, allowing wrap to extend above rim.

6. Insert carved foam into pot, pressing down for snug fit.

7. Slice any foam that protrudes above rim of pot, cutting away plastic wrap even with rim; set pot aside.

8. To form tree, strip leaves from bottom third of branches.

9. Gather branches together, ends even, and wrap bottom third with wire, forming trunk.

10. Conceal wire with floral tape.

11. Insert trunk into center of foam.

12. Conceal foam with leaves stripped from stem.

13. Decorate as desired, or make decorative pears and birds, lightly coating plastic surfaces with white glue, and sprinkling on glitter while glue is wet; let dry.

14. Use wire to hang each ornament on branch of tree.

15. Display tree on holiday table, or as desired.