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It is time to drag out the elastic cords, the saw and the check book and to tap infinite stores of patience. It is time, in other words, to put up the family Christmas tree.

The first step is hunting for the "right" tree. We do this as a family, whether we want to or not.

To become our Christmas tree, an evergreen must meet three criteria. First it must come from a tree lot that is a great distance away from home. How far away? In general the tree lot must be so far away that the drive home is tedious. During that drive I must be required to pull off the road at least once and adjust the elastic cords that keep our newly purchased treasure from sliding off the car into traffic.

Secondly, the tree must be a least one foot taller than the ceiling of the room it is supposed to fit in. That way, once I get the thing home and discover that top of tree looks like a tall man trying to sit in a subcompact car, I have to saw off the bottom of the tree. The sawing is done in the hallway of the house. In addition to chopping the tree down to size, cutting off a chunk of the trunk ensures that the tree will easily soak up the gallons of water it needs to keep from dropping its needles. Finally, it guarantees that pine sap will get all over my clothes.

And thirdly, our tree must cost at least $20 more than I figured it could possibly be worth.

In previous years, my family has had Christmas trees that did not meet these three rules. But somehow these cheaper, shorter, easy-to-transport trees didn't seem like the real thing. No struggle, no satisfaction.

Once I get the tree inside and standing up without touching the ceiling, it is time for the "it's leaning" argument. In some homes this is known as the "little to the left" argument, but whatever it is called, it goes like this. The person known as the tree holder is down on the floor under the branches grasping the trunk of tree, facing his partner. The partner, known as the tree sighter, is sizing up whether the tree is straight, and is standing at the other end of the room.

Tree Holder: "How does it look?"

Tree Sighter: "It's leaning, move it a little to the left."

Tree Holder tilts the tree to his left.

Tree Sighter: "No! That's the wrong way."

Tree Holder: "You said left, that is my left!"

Tree Sighter: "It is my right! Move it back."

Tree Holder: "Which way, left or right?"

Tree Sighter: "Left."

Tree Holder: "Whose left, yours or mine?"

This sweet-spirited exchange continues for about several minutes until the two parties agree on the following: First, that the other party is incredibly stubborn. Second, that the tree is incurably crooked.

Next, the lights are put on the tree. This is a two-part process. First, while fending off the kids, I carefully string the lights on the tree. Second, when I leave the room, my wife rearranges all the lights.

Then it is time to hang the ornaments. There are two phases to this process as well. In Phase 1, the virtually indestructible ornaments are put on the tree -- the wooden houses, the trains, the stuff that bounces rather than breaks when it hits the floor. The kids and husbands are allowed, indeed encouraged, to participate in Phase 1.

But during Phase 2, the hanging of the incredibly fragile and expensive ornaments, the kids and husbands are urged to leave the room. The kids might drop "a treasure." And husbands might ask how much did a "doodad from the museum" cost. Neither action results in much "goodwill toward men" from the womenfolk.

By the time our tree is finally up and decorated, the family has scattered. The kids are upstairs tussling, my wife is in the kitchen chopping vegetables with new-found vigor, and I'm really enjoying the violence of televised football.

But later that night I sneak down to the tree. I give it some more water and turn on the tree lights. Reveling in the aroma, I once again marvel at the surge of good feeling that washes over me when I sit by our glowing Christmas tree. It is magical, even if it is leaning a little to the left.

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