It’s the time of year to put up the tree and bring out the annual Christmas column. Most every columnist worth his or her printer’s ink has some syrupy piece ready for the holiday season. You can guess that the famous letter, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" sprang from some editor’s order: Put together a Christmas piece — now.

Here at U.S. 1 I got the assignment. Nothing came to mind immediately and I was floundering about until a few days ago, when I got a call from my tenant, Paul, asking if I had a handle to replace one he had broken over at the apartment. I did but I couldn’t find it. I started digging through some debris in my home office.

Before long I stumbled across a CD and a press packet that I had received in August, almost thrown away, and then tossed in a pile of unanswered correspondence. This time I started it in the direction of the trash can, but then noticed that the CD was a Christmas CD. Hey, it’s that time of year, maybe I should figure out what this was all about. The CD, it turned out, was called "Ho Ho Ho Spice" and the press release suggested that it was an eclectic, friendly, and alternative-ish compilation of Christmas songs.

As one who has had a CD or tape of virtually every traditional Christmas song sung by Bing Crosby to Gene Autry to Elvis to Randy Travis to the Muppets, I welcomed the promise of an alternative approach to the Christmas classics. I put on the first of the two CDs and listened for a while:

The turkey’s basting in the microwave Is there anything I can do? Dinner will be served at 3:45, football starts at 2.

Pass me a bottle of wine I love to drink in a crowd.

Now that’s an edge I would not expect from a Christmas song. I went back to the press material that came with it and discovered that "Ho Ho Ho Spice" is actually a fundraiser for Saint Barnabas Hospice in Millburn, New Jersey, part of the movement that helps people with terminal diseases live out their days in as meaningful and comfortable a way as possible.

Now if you hear the word "hospice" and think grim reaper and dark rooms with faintly breathing human beings lurking within, then you are not alone. That’s the Christmas CD that you would expect — the one with White Christmas and Jingle Bells and I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

But hospice, it turns out, has an edge to it. I was introduced to the program back in 1997 by my mother, who was getting help while living with ovarian cancer. "It’s not what you think," I recall her telling me, when she said that the hospice volunteer would be stopping by while I was visiting.

Sure enough. The hospice volunteer was a young, vivacious widow. "Hospice isn’t what you think," she told us that day. "We’re not about drawing up the shades and keeping the light out. We’re not here to help you die. We’re here to help you live. If you like to paint, we’ll help you paint; if you want to write letters, we’ll help you write letters. We’ll take care of the small stuff so you can do what’s really important."

I went back to the "Ho Ho Ho Spice" CD. It starts a little slowly, but it grows on you. The artists, all of whom donated their songs, include some totally unknowns along with some recognizable talent: Graham Parker, Stewart Copeland of the Police, and Maggie Roche of the Roches.

Princeton’s own Alice Leon — the Alice Project — is represented with her song "Re-Gifting for the Holidays."

Out of cash, what to do? Holidays were coming, I was feeling blue.

No presents for my family and friends No fruitcakes or gift baskets to send.

I’m regifting for the holidays I’m packing up all that crap Adding new wrap Going to give it to someone new.

I couldn’t find "White Christmas" but the CD did have "White Trash Christmas." That song, by a group called Pork Chop, has its own Christmas story associated with it. The producer and his wife and daughter set out to visit the folks for the holidays. Stalled by bad weather and car trouble, the family ended up spending Christmas at a truck stop. A song was conceived.

So I’m putting in a plug for "Ho Ho Ho Spice." Visit the website at Buy the 49-song double CD for the trivial price of $15.98. And if you are musician with an ear for an odd or ironic Christmas song, consider submitting a piece for the 2004 edition.

Here’s an artistic effort that brings a little light to some old holiday chestnuts. And it supports a program that knows that the darkest days of the year don’t always fall during the days surrounding the winter solstice. Turn up the volume, throw open the curtains, and enjoy this holiday season.

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