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TREE RITUAL GIVES WAY TO - A NEW RITUAL?

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It wasn't our usual getting-the-Christmas-tree ritual for me this year. The press to have the tinsel and lights up early finally got to my family. They bought their trees! They knew I was planning on our annual trek through a neighbor's woods to find and cut a tree and haul it home, all piney and fragrant, while we sang, off-key and tunelessly, our favorite Christmas carols.

Commerce defeated me. Show me a child who begins seeing Christmas in the stores and on television shortly after Labor Day and can wait until the weekend before the great day to put up a tree. They're eager. They're impatient. And, I hate to say it, but their mothers and fathers are eager, too. They don't mind going out into the marts and spending vast sums of money for a tree. They have to if they get a totally green, totally symmetrical one.In fact, I have a relative who spent $59 for a tree! I was aghast.

"But we can plant it," she said. "You know we need trees in our yard."

A young editor summed up that situation for me. "I always get a live tree," she said. "I always plant it. And it always dies."

Even if it lives, what a cost when you can sometimes get young pine seedlings free from our Forestry Service. So I was beginning to wonder if it was time for me to forgo a Christmas tree. Go ahead with the magnolias and cedar for the mantel, freshen up the pine-cone wreaths with pine and never mind a tree.

But I couldn't. So they drove with me to tree lots and nurseries and I acted awful. I didn't want a pruned and dyed tree, I said. They all look exactly alike - not a tad of tree personality in a one of them. Now a tree in the woods looks different, with its branches straying to the right and to the left and none of that pointed prefab look that boughten trees have. One young nurseryman agreed with me.

"How about a holly?" he asked. "They are themselves - holly trees - unshaped, undyed."

"And un-Christmasy-looking," my daughter put in dryly.

"Of course holly is Christmasy," I said. "Symbolic. The thorns represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore. The red berries represent the drops of his blood."

"Sold!" said my children. "We'll take two holly trees; one to decorate, one to plant."

And that's how I happen to have a tree that my friend Nan pronounced as "no worse than some I've seen." I love it. It's just right to stand in the only space my living room offers, a berth on a table in front of a window.

It is too small for all the ornaments I have collected through the years, so I just strung a few, the lighter ones so as not to bend its branches too much. I rejected the strings of electric lights as probably too hot for its green leaves, using the old candles instead. It'll be too hot for them, too, I realized, but maybe we can light them for one chorus of "Silent Night" with buckets of sand and water handy.

It's a plantable tree, too, and that will justify my taking it down immediately after Christmas instead of waiting for New Year's or Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) as legend dictates. I know just where I want it in the yard, and somehow I believe it will live. It must know it's special - no blow-dry pruning, no dye, just a year-round tree.