Christmas trees are turning up for sale everywhere, including street corners and church parking lots. And while fans of real trees will spend a fair amount of time driving around looking for the perfect fir, few will spend as much time trying to find the right stand to set it in.

The stand is a critical first step to keeping your tree balanced, so it does not fall over from the weight of the ornaments and lights. Even more important is its role in maintaining your tree's freshness through the holidays.

Need to know: Experts say we should be less concerned with the ability of the stand to keep the tree upright than with the amount of water the stand will hold. Checking the water level daily is critical. A tree can use up to one quart of water per day for each inch of stem diameter. If you have a tree that is about six feet tall with a trunk that measures about four inches in diameter, you will need to have a stand that holds at least one gallon of water.

Remember to factor in displacement. Information that comes with a tree stand typically includes how much water the stand holds, but does not account for the amount of water the tree will displace once it's in the stand. Look for a stand with literature on this point.

Operating manual: A stand should be wide at the base and able to hold the tree firmly, safely and straight. The stand should be completely stable when you place it on the floor without the tree. The best stands sit flat on the floor, although those with legs should be made of metal or hard, durable plastic. If screws are used to force the tree to sit evenly in the stand, the screws should be made of metal, rather than more breakable plastic. Some stands come with a metal spike in the middle, so the tree can be lodged into it.

The stand also should be durable, meaning that after water has been sitting it, the parts are not covered with rust. If the stand does not come in one piece, it should be relatively easy to put together.

What it will cost: You can buy a stand for $10, but I wouldn't. You're probably going to reuse it for many years, so why not spend more for something that not only lasts a long time, but that you'll grow so accustomed to using that putting up the tree will be a snap every year. From $40 to $45 is a good range.

Innovative stands: Here are two stands, found on an Internet search, that "stand out" from the rest:

* Grinnen's Last Stand, $40. It holds the tree straight with a strap and ratchet, and has a removable water tank,

* Krinner Christmas Tree Stand XXL-12, $79. It uses a foot pedal to adjust a clamp and claw trunk-installation system, and holds trees up to 12 feet tall

Things to avoid: Do not trim the sides of the trunk to make a tree fit in a stand. Trees drink from the sides near the trunk. Trimming the trunk is bound to make the tree more wobbly, too. If the trunk is too wide, you'll need to buy a bigger stand. Some stands have a circular ring at the top, and the ring must be large enough for the trunk to go through. Other stands are open, which may allow a greater range in trunk size.

Good advice: Instead of trying to insert the tree into the stand upright, put plastic down on the floor to protect it and lay the tree down. Loosen the metal screws that allow you to center and hold the tree in place, so that you have a wide berth to adjust them later. Tighten the screws so that the trunk ends up in the middle of the stand. Then get someone else to help you get the tree upright and move it to the right spot.

If the stand has a metal spike, position the spike directly in the center of the trunk. You can tap the bottom of the stand so that the spike fits tightly into the trunk, but don't bang it so hard that you bend the stand or the spike.