On Thanksgiving, I make four kinds of pie, at least two kinds of bread and several batches of homemade croissants, plain and chocolate. For New Year's, it's rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. I even do it up for the 4th of July with a blueberry, strawberry and pastry cream tart shaped like an American flag.

But when it comes to Christmas, I settle for nothing but meatloaf.

It was not always this way. When I was very young, Christmas dinner was always at my grandmother's house, and meatloaf was nowhere to be found.

I remember aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents all gathered around an immaculate Christmas tree that loomed taller in my memory than my adult understanding of the dimensions of Mimi's living room deems possible. I remember long discussions with my sister about which of the hand-sewn, besequined Wizard of Oz ornaments were our favorites. I remember crawling through veritable mountains of presents.

And I remember the food. While my grandfather held court at the table (sort of literally; he was a judge), my grandmother produced pork roasts of incredible succulence, fluffy, lump-free mashed potatoes, vegetables, salads, cakes and who knows what else — all from a kitchen that looked like it had just been scrubbed clean with a toothbrush, which it probably had.

But within a few years, my parents had divorced, and my mom got a good job teaching in Moline, Ill., about six hours north of Murphysboro, the town where my dad and grandmother still live. My sister and I thought of it at the time as an adventure, but I later came to realize how terrifying it must have been for our mother to move someplace where we had no family, no friends and no connections. We were on our own.

Around the holidays in particular, this presented some existential challenges — how to make Christmas live up to the big family extravaganzas we were used to — but also some practical ones. Like, what do you have for dinner? Roast up a turkey or a ham for one adult and two elementary school-aged children, and you're eating it until Easter. And it seemed like an awful lot of bother to go through for just three people. So one year, mom asked us what we wanted, and my sister and I settled on an old favorite: meatloaf.

But not just any meatloaf; no, this was a holiday. Our mother whipped up a meatloaf in the shape of a Christmas tree, which we then helped decorate. We loved it, and we insisted on having it again, proudly serving it up then next year when my grandparents visited. If they were shocked, they didn't let on.

Our meatloaf eventually became famous, in no small part because my sister, when she was a freshman in high school, won second prize for it in the local newspaper's spirit-of-Christmas recipe contest. This was a particularly impressive feat since we didn't actually have a special family recipe for meatloaf; Betsy probably just filched one from the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, but it was the write-up that put her over the top:

"My family is the non-cooking kind. The microwave is used at least once per meal. TV dinners are frequent, and home-cooked meals are few and far between. Because of this, when my mother asked my brother and me if we wanted anything special for dinner on Christmas, we did not hesitate. Our eyes lit up, and we answered, 'Meatloaf, mom!'

"Plain meatloaf, though exotic for my family, was still not festive enough. Our plan to jazz it up evolved until we had created a Christmas tree shaped meatloaf. Every year, we decorate it with ornaments made from red and green peppers. The tree is topped with a star of cheese. As a final flourish, the meatloaf tree is gaily festooned with garlands of ketchup.

"The tradition has lasted for seven years so far. Christmas meatloaf may not be for everyone, but I feel it reflects the unique humor of my family. It also creates some great memories."

If you think Christmas-tree-shaped meatloaf may be for you, I offer a few tips:

• The secret to great meatloaf? Worcestershire sauce, and lots of it.

• You'll need about three pounds of ground beef to make a baking sheet-sized Christmas tree. Mix up your meat and seasonings then spread them on a foil-lined baking sheet in a large triangle, shaping it to create the illusion of branches, reserving a small amount for the stump.

• Decorate after you bake, not before. American cheese is the traditional choice for the star; cheddar can be used, but it tends to get oily and unappealing from the heat of the meatloaf.

• The hard part is transferring the meatloaf from the baking sheet to a platter. Loosen it completely by running a long spatula under it. Do not attempt the actual transfer by yourself; you need at least two people and four spatulas (spatulae?), working together like doctors transferring a patient from a gurney to a hospital bed.

• The stump is considered a delicacy; save it for the most deserving Christmas guest.