ALL CHRISTMAS TREES are beautiful, even plastic ones, if you hang enough junk on them. I learned this the first time I went out in the woods with my father in search of one--we're talking about olden times here--and we ran out of daylight before finding one that suited me.

We'd started out in early afternoon from what we were pleased to call Old Orchard in what has since become fashionable McLean, an old farmhouse on a rutted dirt road by a neglected orchard. The house was said to be inhabited by the ghosts of two ladies who'd been electrocuted, one while doing dishes during a thunderstorm and the other while using an iron with a frayed cord. I tried hard but never heard or saw either of them.

We had walked for miles through the woods, including the tract that's now the CIA's headquarters--my first real job was helping fell the magnificent oaks and maples that made way for the spy palace--but I'd vetoed every tree Dear Old Dad had suggested. Too fat, too thin, too short, too lopsided, whatever. I felt a solemn responsibility to bring home a Disney-class tree.

Such trees do not grow wild, of course, as DOD tried to explain to me. We made our way back through the almost unbroken belt of woods that lay between Walker's Chapel and the Potomac--now an unbroken skein of big houses on little lots--to the edge of the swale where Horace Reid boarded about a million hunting dogs, half a million of which could be counted on to be barking at any given hour of the day or night. Mr. Reid was renowned as a weather prognosticator who often differed from the official forecast and was seldom proved wrong, although of late he had begun to complain that weather patterns were becoming unpredictable "because of those atomic bums." He may have been the first to ask, "What have they done to the rain?"

Hard by his kennels, backlighted by the setting sun, was what DOD forcefully pronounced to be a good-enough tree, in fact a fine tree, a Virginia pine about yea high. I cut it--and myself, a little--with the trimming saw I'd been carrying all afternoon, and we dragged it to the house. My three sisters plainly were not enchanted by it, and my brother probably would have laughed, except that he already had run away to sea by then. But that is another story.

In fact, seen in full light, the tree was laughable, even pitiful. Then DOD, who was a Texan and could do anything, set to work with saw and drill. He trimmed the long lopsided branches and stuck the trimmings into the bare spots on the trunk. Gradually the misshapen mass took on the classic triangular shape--when viewed from a charitable angle--and when mounted in its stand with the bad side to the wall, it only looked half-bad. He strung strand after strand of lights on it, artfully arranging the wires so as to stiffen the faked branches against the burdens to come.

Down from the attic came box after box of ornaments. Glass balls great and small, carved wooden angels, Bakelite Santas, tin stars and carton after carton of crude cardboard and construction paper creations crafted in elementary school over the years--back when we sang Christmas rather than "holiday" carols and dutifully mouthed the Lord's Prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in class--and lovingly saved by Dear Old Mother from season to season as they crinkled and crumbled until at last no amount of Scotch tape would hold them together.

Gradually the limbs began to droop and disappear. By the time we'd loaded on the last paper chain and handful of tinsel--lead tinsel, since outlawed because it poisoned babies and short-circuited wiring, but it draped nicer than the plastic stuff--the tree was all but invisible. In its place stood a glittering pile that DOM, arriving home from her medical rounds, pronounced to be our best tree ever.

She always said that, and it was always true. Something magical happens when you put up a Christmas tree, something that goes beyond the fragrance and the childhood memories it evokes. We've been doing this tree-decorating number for such a long time--according to evolutionary theory our lemur-like progenitors themselves hung from trees--that I think we must have a specific gene for it. The Romans strung bits of bright metal on trees during their winter festival, and some ancient Germanic tribes are said to have decorated ceremonial trees with bits of their enemies.

The indoor Christmas tree and its association with the Nativity celebration are credited to Martin Luther, launcher of the Protestant rebellion, who could be surprisingly sentimental when he wasn't anathematizing and scandalizing the 16th century establishment. According to the University of Illinois Web site, from which comes much of what follows--see Web site address below--"After a walk through a forest of evergreens with shining stars overhead, Luther tried to re-create the experience for his family by bringing a tree into their home and decorating it with candles."

I know two families that still use candles on their trees--very carefully--but there can't be very many others, because nowadays fewer than a dozen Americans die in Christmas tree fires in an average year. Philadelphia outlaws Christmas trees in high-rise apartments, but it must be remembered that Philly's the town where the football fans boo Santa Claus.

I'd always assumed that the Christmas tree tradition came to America with the first English settlers, although a little thought would have raised doubts, since the original Jamestown colonists were desperately fighting off starvation, and the Pilgrims were pinchbeck prudes who would have regarded such antics as silly if not satanic.

In fact 'twas the Hessians--those very same rascals whose Christmas George Washington spoiled at Trenton--who introduced indoor tree-trimming to America. I can't help feeling sorry for those mercenary devils; they probably were sitting around their trees, watching the twinkling, guttering candles and thinking sad, fond thoughts of home, family and bratwurst when here comes Washington a hell-roaring out of the night with his soldiers, all cold and wet from crossing the Delaware and absolutely devoid of holiday spirit.

After the war, having seen this verdant wilderness with all the free land a man could clear and plow, many of those Hessians stayed, and sent for their families, inaugurating an influx of immigrants who created the peaceable and prosperous kingdom of the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch). Along with shoofly pie, apple pandowdy and incredible kitsch, they spread the custom of Christmas trees, which finally began to catch on in the East around the middle of the 19th century.

President Franklin Pierce put the first one up in the White House in 1856--for the benefit of some visiting Washington Sunday schoolers--and the rest is history, except for Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, when Christmas trees were banned because Teddy thought it was a damned shame to cut down a tree and trick it out with gewgaws and then throw it away.

These days 98 percent of America's Christmas trees are grown on farms, more than 77 million a year, and the industry employs some 100,000 people. Oregon and Michigan are the leading producers, but there are tree farms in all 50 states. Trees take six to eight years to grow to cutting size, at which point they're doomed whether you buy one or not. (You can buy a living tree and then plant it if that makes you feel better.).

Trees sold from parking lots generally have been several weeks in transit and may be in sad shape. A common retail trick is to spray-paint trees to mask browning needles; the spillover is obvious on branches and trunks but can be missed in the dark. If the needles are brittle or pull out easily, move right along. The only way to absolutely guarantee freshness--and have a nice day with the kids--is to cut your own tree from a local tree farm.

I was surprised to learn from net surfing that Christmas trees are available by mail order (well, UPS), with delivery promised within two or three days of the cutting.

From time to time the Christmas spirit may flag or fail in any of us, and then the whole Christmas tree thing becomes a burden. Some years ago my wife and I--busy with separate careers--opted for an artificial tree. It was surprisingly realistic, except that it was too shapely, and the kids were not amused.

The following year, to make amends, I set off with my son in search of a free-range tree. Happily, we had free run of a sizable tract of land on Maryland's Western Shore that a friend had bought as an investment. Scores of acres. Thousands of trees. I thought we'd make short work of it, but this tree was too fat, and that one too skinny, and the day slipped away. The details of my boyhood first Christmas tree-stalking expedition, which had faded over the years, came rising to the surface like trout to the evening hatch.

At length, exhausted, we settled--I insisted--on a tree and hauled it home. It was way too tall, so the bottom had to be cut off. That left far too few branches to hang half our stuff. So I got out the drill and bored the trunk full of holes and stuck in the branches that had been cut off. A little trimming here, some wire bracing there, and then it was mounted, with the bad side to the corner. We strung too many lights and too many decorations and flung on much too much tinsel. It was our best tree ever.

MARYLAND CHRISTMAS TREE FARMS -- www.mda.state.md.us/org/mcta.htm

VIRGINIA CHRISTMAS TREE FARMS -- www.state.va.us/ vdacs/opms/99tre.htm

SELECTION RECOMMENDATIONS -- www.bugwood.caes.uga.edu/christmas/97007c.html

LORE AND LEGEND -- www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/trees/traditions.html