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You can't have Christmas without a tree. But the ritual of buying the tree, getting it home, securing it in a stand, stringing it with lights and hanging the ornaments is one of my least favourite holiday activities.

This goes back to my childhood and that dreaded annual family event - putting up the tree.

It always started out so well as our family of six headed to the lot to select the tree. But the arguing would erupt as soon as we got there: what size of tree, what type of tree, how much to spend. Everyone would be sweaty and grumpy before we even carried it through the front door.

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Up next was wrestling the tree into the stand, basically a cup on wobbly feet with massive screws that took forever to tighten against the trunk. This job required that my father take many breaks to drink rye and Coke.

My mother would assist by holding the tree and making various helpful suggestions that only seemed to make things worse.

By the time it was secured, my parents would be in a standoff over who was more capable at erecting the tree, and we children would have heard a few of those choice words children aren't supposed to hear.

Waiting to decorate gave us plenty of time to work ourselves into a frenzy. The only distraction was to open all the boxes of ornaments and spread tinsel around the house, adding to the general mayhem.

At this point, something inevitably would break and someone would be sent to their room in tears. One kid down, three to go.

More drinks would be consumed and the lights would be strung - again requiring much heated debate. In those days, if one light bulb burned out the entire strand didn't work. Just imagine how much fun that added to the festive atmosphere.

After more tears and more room banishment, it was time to start hanging the ornaments. By then it'd be going on 10 p.m., and anyone left standing would have lost interest and moved on. My mother would try to drum up some family spirit, but the whole thing felt forced and we would count down the minutes until it would be over. Not even the combination of more rye and Andy Williams singing It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year could save this festive family event.

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To this day, the words "putting up the tree" strike fear into the hearts of me and my siblings.

But the amazing thing was that our tree always looked beautiful. Years later, I learned that as soon as everyone was out of the house the morning after, my mother would remove every single ornament and piece of tinsel and redecorate the entire thing, producing a tree worthy of a department store window. It was like a Christmas miracle. And we never even realized how it happened.

Now here I am, many years later, having my own "putting up the tree" crisis. My husband doesn't like Christmas. He doesn't like the consumerism, the buildup, the mess and the fuss, and he especially doesn't like the whole business of the tree. Some men love nothing better than to put on their favourite Christmas sweater, mull some wine and spend an evening decorating their competently erected tree. My husband prefers to hide out in his studio, not returning until he's sure it's all over.

This was an issue between us for many years, at least until our son became tall enough to help me. I can now manage the entire operation without spousal support.

First, I pick out a fir tree and get it home (thanks to the nice man at the tree lot, who I'm sure feels sorry for me).

Once I get home, my teen helps me carry it into the living room - as long as it fits into his video-gaming schedule.

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The next step is getting the tree upright. I have purchased at least six tree stands over the past 17 years, each one promising to be so easy to use it will be "the last stand you will ever have to buy." Yet each one has been more complicated than the last, with some crucial piece missing every time. The last one I bought advertised on the box: "No husband required." Perhaps I'm not the only woman with this problem. I snapped it up and it has proven to be the best of a bad lot.

My teen and I wrestle the tree into the no-husband-needed stand, and between the two of us get it perhaps not completely straight, but at least upright.

Then I usually invite my son and a few of his friends to decorate it, bribing them with candy canes and hot chocolate. They were enthusiastic about this job from the ages of 6 to 11, but now this trio of 12- and 13-year-old boys quickly run out of steam and are back to their video games before you can say "pass the tinsel."

"Why bother?" friends and family ask. "Get a fake tree, or don't bother with a tree at all."

But even though it's a lot of work and I complain about it endlessly, once it's done I love the look of a real tree all lit up and beautifully decorated, filling our house with the smell of Christmas. Despite all the work, the mess and the arguments (past and present), I can't imagine the holidays without one.

So, with Andy Williams on the stereo and a festive Christmas cocktail in hand, I decorate the tree exactly the way I want it. Just like Mom used to do.

Susan Evans lives in Vancouver.

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