It's the most wonderful time of the year...," sings hubby Patrick. He has been belting that holiday tune out since before Halloween, his way of poking fun at his Christmas-loving wife. "Halloween is right around the corner, time to pull out the Christmas CDs," he jests. "Coal is what you're going to get Christmas morning," I usually retort. Of course, it won't be coal for the man in my life. I'm not sure what gift he is going to find yet, but one little surprise is going to be a new tree topper. Usually the tree is adorned with a large Neapolitan angel. But this year, I want something different -- to shake tradition up a bit. That cherub is to be demoted to ornament rank and something else will take its lofty place.First call went out to Jean Leighton, owner of Impact Decorating. "Most of the time I don't even do a tree topper; I do just a great big bow out of wire ribbon," Leighton explained, "with long streamers. The size of the ribbon depends on the size of the tree. I wouldn't use anything less than a number 40 ribbon. If it is a really huge tree, we go up to what is called a number 100, which is about four inches wide.

"I've also done snowflakes for the top of the tree. I have used flat snowflakes and put them back-to-back on the top of a tree. My signature look is icicles," she said. "We do lots and lots of icicles and it gives the tree a really elegant look."

Leighton suggested a decorating haunt. "You should really go to Dave's Display World. They have the most unusual things."

I hustled straight there and chatted with manager Lynn Koontz. "Here we believe anything can be a topper," Koontz offered. "Just use your imagination." The store was full of imagination. A tree covered with two-foot glittery pink flamingos scattered among white peacocks and green finches sparkled in the corner. A lime-green tinsel tree glowed with dewy fruit ornaments. Koontz was working on an underwater-themed tree, complete with mermaids and a King Neptune doll ($126.95) for the top. The other side of the tree was going to be a boating theme, with wooden fishermen figures, lighthouses, and wooden boats. "Anything you have at home, if you have a collection, put it on the tree," she said. "Just wire it to the tree; in some instances you can actually take a piece of the greenery of the tree and wrap it around the ornament."

Flanking the entrance of the store were two silver tinsel trees, sparkling with all-silver ornaments; peering down from the top were two enormous silver jesters. "They are 60-inch jesters" ($595 each), Koontz said. "The jesters come with movable legs so they can be seated on the tree." A smaller 14-inch red velvet jester costs $24.95.

Another tree was topped with a pair of snowmen ($129 for the two-foot pair), both mechanical, one adorned with a black top hat and the other with a red Santa hat. "You can also use toy soldiers," continued Koontz, "or elves, or musical ornaments, or candy canes for the tree. I try to do a nativity tree every year, where I actually put the nativity scene into the tree. The angel sits on top and then Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus sit in the middle of the tree -- a portion of the tree is cut out. Then the animals and the other figures actually become an inner part of the tree."

"Fresh flowers seem to be a fad this year for the trees," added Koontz. "Roses are big and fresh poinsettias and fresh fruit are always used."

Creative juices flowing, I hit a few more stores. At Circa A.D., salesman Charles showed me their Krinkles Queen Fairy Tree Topper ($65). "She's very whimsical; she's kicking up her feet in the back." The 12-inch fairy has a white organza dress with red bodice, candy-cane-striped tights, and she holds red poinsettia flowers.

"I also thought you could take four of these jeweled red-and-gold poinsettias," he continued, holding up the seven-inch flowers with beaded centers and petals made of wire, glitter, and sequins ($6.50 per stem). "They are bendable, and you could put three red flowers around the bottom with the gold one on top, in the middle, and then just push the whole thing into the top of the tree. That would be very pretty.

"And putting a red Santa's hat on top of the tree is always fun," he added.

On the road home, I popped into Target to check out their tree-topper selection. They were heavy with star and snowflake toppers, but a few stood out as possibilities. A wire ten-inch glittered gold star ($9.99) with gold swirls throughout the star was eye-catching, as was an ivory fabric poinsettia topper ($7.99) trimmed with iridescent glitter, clear glass chunks in the center, and white spray berries spreading out from the top.

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