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DECK THE HALLS But not each other Will the tree be real or artificial? Tinsel or garland? Colored or white lights? Decisions abound . . .


The way Mary Opasik sees it, it was your basic philosophical difference. A situation where sound, reasonable people held views so diametrically opposed that trying to reconcile them, or even see the logic of the other side, was, well, virtually impossible.

"Tinsel," she says with a sigh. "It was always the sore spot in our family."

To her, it just wasn't Christmas without the shimmering, silvery strands. But to her siblings, the decorations belonged as far from the tree as a lit match.

Year after year, the battle waged, with the tinsel lovers eventually winning out -- namely because they had one important advantage.

"Mother," Ms. Opasik says, "was pro-tinsel."

And so it goes in many families. The Rockwellian image of the perfect tree trim -- complete with hot cider, yuletide carols and merriment -- gives way to something more akin to high-powered diplomacy.

Will the tree be real or artificial? Tinsel or garland? Colored or white lights? Decisions abound, and somewhere between stringing lights and hanging ornaments many families abandon their hopes of a flawless celebration for one featuring everything from negotiating to coercion to -- when all else fails -- fighting.

"I know there are people who say they have a wonderful time lighting the fire, making hot chocolate and decorating the tree," says Alan Reisinger, a husband and father of three. "They're either childless or lying."

For him, trouble often starts at the tree farm.

"We spend an hour and a half out in the field. The kids get lost. Weget anxious, and we never find a tree we agree on. By that time, we all are getting frostbite and are ready to kill each other so we go to the nearest shopping center and buy the first tree we see on the lot," says Dr. Reisinger, a 34-year-old internist who lives in Ellicott City.

He and his wife Rachelle console themselves with visions of harmony being restored as their children -- ages 2, 4 and 6 -- decorate the tree just as they did as youngsters. But that dream is also short-lived, he says.

"We try to make it a family affair until three of our family ornaments get broken," he says. "Then Daddy starts cussing and [the children] are all banished from Christmas tree decorating until one of them hits puberty."

In this season of good cheer and high stress, these reactions are understandable, says Ruthellen Josselson, professor of psychology at Towson State University.

"People have different memories of childhood they want to keep alive and they sometimes come into conflict with each other," she says. "It's a challenge for couples to knit the past together into a shared present."

Mary Opasik understands. Just the other day, she and her husband Jim decided to put up the first Christmas tree in their 13-year marriage.

Things got off to a rocky start when he said he favored long-needled trees and she said she favored short. Then, Mr. Opasik recommended placing the tree in an unconventional spot in the cramped living room.

"He suggested cutting the tree down the center and putting it on the wall," she says incredulously. "We had a fight, a terrible fight about it. I had a fit. I was screaming. I said you're not going to do that. Afterward, I thought, 'This is silly. We're having a fight over a Christmas tree.' "

But it's not really surprising that she and her husband, both artists, should squabble over a Scotch pine vs. a Douglas fir.

"It is a passionate subject," says Ms. Opasik, 42, who lives in Catonsville. "Christmas trees are really special. They're symbolic the Christmas spirit, of giving and warmth and light. Even the way they smell is important."

For many families, compromise is the solution. Since Ms. Opasik selected the spot where the tree would go, she let her husband choose the tree top ornament. His preference, an elf head with glowing eyes, would never have been hers, she confesses.

"Well, I think it would be wonderful on another kind of tree," she says diplomatically. "But we're going with it."

Similarly, the Reisingers alternate between having a twinkling star (children's choice) and a baroque angel (parent's choice) grace their top branch.

But like everyone in life, Dr. Reisinger does have his limits. "We don't have blinking lights," he says. "They give me a headache."

And when it comes to tree trimming, you might as well forget about equality between the sexes. For many couples, there's men's work and there's women's work.

"Daddy gets underneath and screws in the tree," Dr. Reisinger says. "And Daddy always strings the lights because I have the toughest hands. Mommy handles the decorations because she has more taste."

Area retailers attest to this division of labor.

"Who's the decision maker?" asks Kevin Betts, assistant manager at Frank's Nursery & Crafts in Towson. "Always the wife. The men pick the lights and the women pick the ornaments."

If an argument should occur, put your money on the woman, adds Ed Lilley, owner of the Christmas Company in Ellicott City. "The men cave in 99 percent of the time," he says. "In four years, I've seen two instances where the husband rules. It's a rarity. They're more worried about paying the bills than what goes on the tree."

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