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The Search For the Perfect Tree At Christmas

ON any list of life's important decisions, choosing a Christmas tree must rank near the bottom - at least in theory. But in practice, finding the right tree is far from a casual exercise, as even a brief visit to a tree lot reveals.

Tree shoppers can be divided into two categories: the Decisives and the Indecisives. To the Decisives, all Christmas trees are created more or less equal. They assume that the first or second tree they see is probably as good as the 90th or 100th will be, so why keep looking? Color these people efficient - and consider them relatively rare.

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For the larger group of Indecisives, the quest for a perfect tree takes time. Like Goldilocks wandering through the three bears' house, trying out beds, chairs, and porridge bowls to find the ones that are ``just right,'' the Indecisives zigzag through aisles of fragrant balsams and pines and firs, rating the choices: Too tall. Too short. Too full. Too sparse. Somewhere a just-right tree exists - if they just keep looking long enough.

Veteran employees at Christmas tree lots can tell stories - lots of stories - about the family dynamics that come into play during this December routine. One salesman, who notes that decisions get quicker as the weather gets colder, tells of watching a customer spend two hours looking at trees last Saturday - a balmy day - while her husband waited with increasing impatience.

The same salesman has observed ``wicked fights'' as families disagree about tree size, shape, needle length, and price. He also recalls times when a husband has stopped to buy a tree on his way home from work, only to return later with his wife - and the tree. ``It's not that he picked out a bad tree,'' the salesman explains. ``It's just that she wanted to be part of the process.''

Being part of the process is, of course, one of the pleasures of holiday preparations. Buying a tree represents not just an outlay of cash, but an investment in tradition. It is a seasonal rite cloaked in memories of Christmases past and infused with fervent hopes for Christmases present and future.

Even when the perfect tree is finally anchored in its stand and carried into the house, other decisions must be made. White lights or colored? Big bulbs or tiny? Tinsel or plain? The list of choices goes on.

Obviously no tree, however important it might seem as a symbol of holiday hospitality and individuality, is worth even a brief fight. Yet all the small personal dramas being played out on tree lots and in living rooms these days are also being repeated on public stages as various cities and towns ban decorations that might be considered even remotely ``religious.''

This year, our suburban town administrator decreed that there can be no ``holiday displays which have a religious connotation, such as a creche, menorahs, and Christmas trees,'' in public areas of town buildings.

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The ban quickly set off a few ``wicked fights'' of its own within the community. Town employees petitioned selectmen to reconsider the ruling, arguing that Christmas trees are a universal holiday symbol, rather than a religious symbol. A priest made a plea in his Sunday homily for town leaders to be ``respectful of the traditions and symbols of other religious faiths.'' And a few residents fired off angry letters to the editor of our weekly paper.

One reader wrote: ``This goes beyond religion, but in fact it revokes the spirit of a happy holiday season.'' Another woman asked: ``Is that moral evil, political correctness, to be allowed to replace ancient traditions, customs, and beliefs?''

No one can say that a tree is a tree is a tree, at least at Christmas. The buyer is not the Christmas tree he or she purchases. The buyer is not even the presents he or she puts under the tree. But finding meaning in small decisions and caring about how those choices represent one - this does begin to get to the point. Now if all the tree lovers could take things one step further and extend their ideals beyond the spread of evergreen branches, who knows what this might do for the meaning of Christmas? @QUOTE = Buying a tree is an investment in tradition. It is a rite cloaked in memories of Christmases past and infused with fervent hopes for the present and future.

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