It is not true that Santa Claus will pass up a house with a plastic Christmas tree, nor that he keeps an A list and a B list of the families who cut their own trees and those who buy them from the civitans.

Santa knows the little shavers are not to blame for the sorry decline of the ancient pagan custom of trekking into the forest for the tree around which unspeakable rites were performed to relieve the monotony of winter's cabin fever.

Santa is aware that everybody lives in town now and that going out in the country to poach a tree from somebody's woods can get you arrested if not actually shot.

Santa even knows that when you have a real tree it takes from one Christmas to the next to get the damn needles out of the rug. And Santa is sympathetic.

But the jolly old gentleman is having a hard time keeping his spirits up in this day of computerized misbilling and Tv-stoned kids who change their lists after each and every commercial break, and he would appreciate a little effort on our parts.

Some of us are within driving distance of an old home place still inhabited by trees and grandparents, in which case it would be unforgivable not to make the pilgrimage. Some have good friends with a place in the country and a woodlot that needs thinning.

But for most of us the only legal way to cut a tree is to go to a tree farm. Which is not a bad way to spend half a day. Of the dozen or so tree farms in the Washington exurbs to choose from we went to Danny-Dayle near Winchester because Mark, who is 6, heard there was a pond he could fish in, and he would almost rather fish than eat junk or write on the walls.

Mark would also rather fish than pick a tree, and we had some difficulty keeping his attention as we wandered over one of the fields pointed out by owner Dwain Ray Place.

Evan while looking back over his shoulder, however, Mark found two likely candidates. Naturally they were at opposite ends of the field, which involved some hiking and pondering until the choice settled on the one farther from the van.

When the ground is dry, Place invites shoppers to drive into the fields, but a little sweat helped to make picking a tree from the long orderly rows seem a little less like shooting fish in a barrel.

The trees we looked over had been only lightly pruned, and tended to be about as skewed and gappy as the ones God grows by himself. You want perfect, get plastic.

For 50 cents extra Place runs the tree through a forcing cone and encases it in nylon mesh, which is well worth it.

His son also supplied hooks and bobbers for our roads when it turned out that Dumb Daddy had left the tackle box at home.

We caught a couple of dozen bluegills in an hour or so, but Big Girl made us toss all but one of them back because she has the impossibly high standards of a person who doesn't fish very much; I thought half of them were fair pan size.

Place says there are bass in the pond too, but we never could get our worms past the bluegills.