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A Christmas tree evokes memories, whether joyful, bittersweet, wistful or nostalgic for people and times gone by. Christians (and many other people) usually have a tree as the centerpiece that represents the season. The tradition as we know it has ancient roots, but first came to America from Germany, with many variations also imported from England, Sweden and other countries. But Americans have made the Christmas tree their own.

Can you picture the tree lot in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?" The immigrant children Francie and her brother could take home a tree, heaved at them by the lot owner, if it didn't knock them down.

Do you remember the magnificent, lighted trees in "A Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "White Christmas?" It's never the tree; it's the emotion it triggers.

Was it the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York, the one at the White House in Washington, or one in your town's park that formed your first image of a public tree lighting? Were you sitting on Dad's shoulders, holding Mom's hand or visiting Grandma for Christmas?

We have our traditions, built around the Christmas tree, both collective and individual.

One of those American traditions is the trip to a Christmas tree farm (or sometimes a city lot) to choose or perhaps cut your own tree. It's not an old tradition: In 1900 only one in five American families had a Christmas tree at home, but by 1930 most Christian households did so, acquiring their trees from forests. Christmas tree farms sprang up from World War II forward, with a surge during the 1960s and 1970s. A downward trend happened during the 1980s, with competition from the artificial (plastic) tree market. Currently about 98 percent of real Christmas trees come from tree farms, where about 73 million future Christmas trees are planted every year a valuable sector of New York's and many states' agriculture.

A Nielsen Research study showed that nearly 13 million Americans choose an artificial Christmas tree, while more than 21 million put up a real one annually. People have their reasons for the artificial tree choice neatness, reuse, allergies.

Kind-hearted tree lovers may even feel sad about cutting down a living tree, but I would remind them that Christmas tree farming often keeps country properties afloat, that the plantation is a wildlife-friendly environment, and that trees benefit the atmosphere. About 350 million potential Christmas trees are growing right now across the United States.

>Choosing your tree

While information and recommendations abound regarding which species hold their needles longest, it is difficult to predict just by species. Annual growing conditions can affect needle drop for even fresh-cut trees, and many a local grower has had a bad year when the trees didn't last very well in customers' homes. However, the best odds of keeping a Christmas tree fresh for several weeks in your house is to do this:

1. Buy fresh cut and locally grown if you can. Support a farmer.

2. Recut the butt. At the garden center or tree farm, have an inch cut off (and enough lower branches to give a butt that fits the stand). Use the branches to decorate.

3. Get the fresh-cut butt into water. Leave it in water outside until you transfer it to your tree stand.

4. Use a tree stand with a big reservoir. Really, those half-gallon sizes from yesteryear have to go.

5. Keep the stand full so the butt never dries out. A dried Christmas tree is a fire hazard and gets messy quickly besides.

6. Keep the tree cool or at least as cool as possible. Don't put it up near a heater, the fireplace, etc. Turn the heat down at night.

As for species to choose, we have witnessed an evolution over the last years, away from the Scots pines and white pines of the 1940s, and toward more spruces and firs. Many people love spruces, because they have sturdy branches and lots of room for ornaments. Douglas fir has been a longtime favorite, although it's had some disease problems in recent years in the Northeast. The Fraser fir is America's favorite, but it is difficult to grow in our area. Many local growers prefer firs, and you should be seeing many of them grand fir, Nordmann, concolor and others in garden centers and tree farms.

Ken Brown, president of the Christmas Tree Growers Association of Western New York, recommends we look for the Canaan fir now and in the future. It tends to grow in wetter soils (typically clay), and has beautiful needles and an attractive shape. The CTGA website www.christmastreeswny.org lists farms in Erie and surrounding counties that carry the Canaan fir and many other fine trees.

The best tree is the one that makes you happiest.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.