Each year, with Christmas on the horizon, millions of people will venture forth to pick the family Christmas tree. And most of them will have no idea what they are doing.

On the whole they are rather fine people. But they share a common affliction: the inability to think clearly when the calendar turns to December. So to those of you who feel faint and nauseous at the thought of what is to come, I offer this simple guide to picking a truly perfect Christmas tree.

The first consideration has to be your companions in this quest. Who are they and what kind of damage are they capable of?

Beware the middle-aged office worker who, with tree cutting permit in hand, charges off in the family station wagon, the back of which is full of axes and saws. He will discover that these implements are just as dull as they were last year and just as incapable of cutting a tree. The saw will skip off the bark and shred his new suede gloves. The axe will actually cut that bark, but go no deeper. The only real effect the axe will have is on its user, who will spend the next several days in bed suffering from intense lower back pain.

The very clumsy lumberjacks will return home via the hospital, astonished by the sheer number of stitches.

The most dangerous of these men is doubtless the one who, tired of the physical exertion of years past, will haul out his chainsaw, remove the price tag and fire it up. You must run from these men; they are the principal reason why there are so many surgeons in this country.

Another tree-hunting companion to avoid is the matron in the faux-fur leopard skin coat, who hunts for trees in the urban environment. She will either dismiss an entire lot of trees before you have even parked the car or spend all morning walking around the same small lot. Your arms will tire from shifting the trees, holding them upright or turning them around, hour after agonizing hour. Her demands to bang the trunk repeatedly on the ground to check for dry needles will screech in your ears. These tree hunting expeditions can last several days and cover entire cities. This woman is looking not so much for a tree as she is for the Holy Grail.

The last companions to avoid are your wife and children. They are never happy, no matter which tree you choose. It will either be too tall, too short, too flat, or the wrong shade of green. The needles will be too pointy or too blunt, the trunk too skinny or covered in sticky sap. Frustration will build and, by the end of the day you will return home empty-handed and hating each other.

Each Christmas tree lot is different and you must be aware of the tricks of the trade. Avoid those lots which are poorly lit. The trees are hidden in the gloom for a very good reason: they are squat ugly and useful only as wood chips in gardens. If the owner of the lot is a young man dressed in greasy overalls who keeps glancing at his watch, you will no doubt be able to find a good bargain. However, the next day you will also find that your tree is completely naked and that the tree lot has mysteriously vanished.

If the entrance to the lot is staffed by fetching young elves in red-and-white miniskirts who offer you a choice of wines, stop and consider this: does your credit card have a limit?

Once having chosen an affordable and trustworthy lot, you must approach each tree carefully, with a keen eye and a sharp measure of cynicism. Remember that trees are like women; they are none of them created equal. Some are good, some are not, and a very few are truly fine. Your goal is to find one which combines graceful form with a noble presence, all without costing you a bundle.

Make sure that the tree is relatively fresh, with its needles firmly attached to even the tiniest branch. There is nothing more disheartening than to awaken one morning and find that the cat cannot extract itself from under the pile of newly fallen needles.

And try to find a tree that has only one bad section, which can be turned to the wall and thus, hidden from sight. Let your visitors believe you have a perfect tree. Christmas is nothing if not a season for subtle deceptions.

Now that you understand what is involved in finding a Christmas tree, choosing the perfect one is an easy matter. Go to the nearest tree lot and go alone. Spend no more than fifteen minutes and pick the third tree that catches your eye. Then return home, and place it carefully but firmly into the tree stand. Ignore the protests from your wife and children about the lack of proper procedures and settle yourself into a comfortable chair.

Within an hour, your family will have covered the tree with so many blinking lights, tacky baubles and shiny tinsel that it will be difficult to tell if they are decorating a tree or a floor lamp.

Then you can relax. The worst part of Christmas is now over.

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