LAST YEAR, ON A FRIGID MORNING

when the ground was lightly sugared with snow, my long-suffering wife and I, possessed by some foolish Currier and Ives vision of Christmas, stuffed a carpenter's saw, a length of rope and our little tykes into the family station wagon and set off to cut down a tree.

We had decided to abandon our traditional Christmas ritual of traveling to a parking lot to give a surly, red-eared man with whisky breath an absurd amount of money in return for a brutally bound and tagged tree. Instead, we were off to a tree farm in Montgomery County.

We knew just what we wanted: a big, brawny, cone-shaped tree, a real John Wayne of a tree. In a land where Christians outnumber evergreens, however, trees are inevitably decapitated before they can attain Duke-dom. We found, instead, a small forest of Truman Capote trees and Emmanuel Lewis trees and Herve Villechaize trees.

We traversed the field for an eternity, looking for the perfect tree and finding only scrub pines marred with deformities. Finally, we settled for a passable five-footer that was lopsided but not unlovable. I crawled on my belly in the snow, sawed the tree down, hoisted it on my shoulder and shackled it to the roof rack.

Back home, the tree's esthetic flaws became glaringly evident. Though it was obviously a mere babe from the woods, this bush suffered all the afflictions of a middle-aged man -- it was misshapen, potbellied and balding. Grabbing a hedge clipper, I performed cosmetic surgery. Then, with a theatrical fanfare for the benefit of the kids -- ta da da DAT da DA -- I lowered the tree into the ancient family Christmas tree stand.

Unfortunately, it didn't fit. A knob on the tree trunk couldn't squeeze through the ring on the stand. So I sawed off the knob, and then, with another theatrical fanfare for the benefit of the kids, I tried again. Still no go. The lowest branch was too low for the trunk to fit in the stand. So I cut the branch off and tried again. Oops. Now a cluster of branches prevented the trunk from penetrating the ring. So I sawed them off, too. And then . . .

Well, let's just say that by the time the tree fit into the stand, it was about the size of a house plant. I considered throwing it out and going to see the red-eared man with the whisky breath. Instead, I mounted the pygmy pine on an old Army footlocker, filled the stand with water and, with a theatrical fanfare for the benefit of the kids, announced that it was time to decorate the tree. Then I noticed the pool of water at my feet. I realized with a sinking heart that I'd just butchered a defenseless tree so that it would fit into a leaky stand.

With Christmas spirit diminished (to say the very least), I drove to the hardware store to buy another stand. I picked out the biggest, heaviest, most durable one, which was, of course, the most expensive one.

Returning home, I lowered the Christmas twig into the new high-class stand and voila` . . . The tree was too small for it. The screws in the ring of the new stand couldn't even reach the scrawny trunk. The pathetic twig just flopped around inside the stand like a golf club in a garbage can.

Uttering anti-Christmas oaths that would make Scrooge blush, I put the tree back into the old stand, poured in a sip or two of water and wrapped the leaky tub in swaddling clothes. (Actually, they were diapers, and, of course, they had to be changed regularly.) Then, with a fanfare that had become somewhat world-weary, I announced once again that it was time to decorate the twig.

And as the little darlings garnished this pathetic parsley sprig with ersatz icicles, I sang a modified version of the old hymn:

"Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree,

"How evergreen your branch is."