Admit it: The prospect of decorating your Christmas tree seems like, well, a drag. It's a lot of work; there's no denying it. But the rewards are beautiful, whether you choose an artificial tree or a freshly cut tree. There's certainly a movement toward the "natural" look; some 33 million genuine Christmas trees will grace the homes of families in the United States this month. The first decorated Christmas tree in the United States is said to have been trimmed somewhere around 1850. Since then, our decorations have become more elaborate and at times, more dangerous.

This year, as you prepare to drag your old artificial Christmas tree out of the cardboard box in the corner of the garage - you know, the one with the leaning top, sparse patches and bent branches - you suddenly make the decision to buy a bona fide pine tree - once and for all. Everyone tells you there's no comparison. And try as you might, you can't disguise the bride of Frankenstein. No matter how many flashy ornaments and tiny lights you string from its branches, that faux tree keeps leaning against the wall as if it just can't bear another Christmas standing in your living room supporting your kids' homemade punched-tin ornaments and shedding tinsel, and receiving longing looks from the family dog.

So you do it: You buy a real tree. Without so much as a clue as to how to keep it alive for more than 12 hours. That's assuming, of course, that you can figure out how to keep it standing. How do you select a good "specimen," place it safely in your living room and keep it healthy during your holiday season?

What size tree you select, of course, is up to you. You may want to start somewhat smaller if this is your first experience with a real fir tree. Once you've made your selection, secure it tightly to your car (bungee cords do the trick) and avoid crushing or otherwise damaging the branches if you can help it. Oh - and if you haven't figured it out yet, those pine needles and in particular, the trunk, can scratch your car's paint job, so you might consider laying towels or a thin blanket on the rooftop before you lie the tree on top and secure it.

Once you arrive home and remove the tree from your car, you'll probably notice it's covered with protective netting. Remove it as soon as possible; it's holding the branches down, and the longer you leave the netting on, the harder it will be for your tree to regain its shape. If you're not planning to trim the tree immediately, store it in a cool, dry place (preferably under cover) away from heat and sunlight until you're ready to decorate.

Just as you would trim the stem of a rose before you placed it in water, you should trim the trunk of your tree (the Christmas Tree Association recommends making a cut one quarter inch from the existing base of the tree) and remove any stray branches that will prevent you from placing your tree in its stand. Before you place it in the stand, however, place a bag around the base of the trunk, which will serve as your tree disposal bag after the holidays. Then, carefully place your tree in its stand, and adjust it accordingly. If your stand appears too large or too small, purchase another, better-fitting stand. If you don't, you face the serious risk that your tree will tip over.

Fill the stand with at least one gallon of water, and check the water level daily. You'll notice that your tree "drinks" the entire gallon of water within 24 hours. Each day after that, its water consumption will reduce to approximately one quart, although many trees will consume more than one quart of water. Don't allow the stand to run dry, or the needles will soon dry out and begin to shed, and the branches will droop. Whether or not you should add tree preservative to your water is a topic of debate; the Christmas Tree Association doesn't recommend the practice and instead stresses the importance of simply keeping your stand filled with an abundant supply of water.

Real trees are vulnerable to heat sources, of course, although it's doubtful they present any more of a risk than your old artificial tree. The National Fire Protection Association states that, of the approximately 33 million real Christmas trees purchased in the United States each year, fewer than .0001 percent (one one-thousandth of a percent) are accountable for a residential fire. Make sure that you set your tree far from vents, radiators, stoves, portable heaters and fireplaces. In addition, be vigilant with your strings of lights. Study them carefully for signs of wear and tear - in particular, exposed wire - and avoid overloading your electric sockets with excessive cords.

Once you get the hang of setting up and caring for a real Christmas tree, you'll probably join the legions of Americans who will never go back to artificial. Best of all, once the holidays are over, you wrap up your tree and dispose of it - instead of being faced with the question of where to store it for the next year.

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