I can't inhale the aroma of fresh cedar without remembering Christmas when I was a child. We didn't think anything but cedar would do for our Christmas tree and we'd start looking for one with the perfect shape and size weeks before it was time to cut it. We'd keep a sharp lookout during our frequent hunting excursions, which consisted mostly of scaring rabbits from our farm to the neighbor's.

We became expert in evaluating shape, fullness, length and the distance from home we'd have to drag the tree once we'd cut it. Occasionally, we'd crank up the old FarmAll, hitch the trailer to it and bring the tree home in style. But mostly, we relied on boy muscle and sibling teamwork to get the tree home. Sometimes it took hours.

The tree had to have the typical Christmas tree shape, full at the bottom with a nice taper upward. We shunned trees with doubled branches at the top or twin trunks. And we were often disappointed to discover that a tree that seemed the very icon of Christmas from half an acre away lost its appeal on a closer inspection, which revealed the side opposite our view was as spare as our pockets.

In a pinch, however, we could always put the bad side to the wall, especially if the tree was within sight of the house.

We chopped, hacked, mutilated the tree down with an ax and trimmed and squared the base with a saw when we got it home. We reluctantly removed a few bottom branches so the tree would fit in the base.

It seemed that every time we cut one branch we had to remove at least two more to even it up. Amazing that we ever had enough tree left to decorate.

But decorating was an event. We usually cut the tree the Friday afternoon we got out of school for Christmas vacation. That meant five kids clamoring for mom to pull out the decorations right after supper so we could trim the tree that night.

We had traditions. Mom usually placed the lights. Else they would have been jumbled up in the middle. We placed the glass balls on carefully and usually broke fewer than six or seven before we were done.

We each had special ornaments. Mine were colorful plastic birds that snapped onto the limbs. I always tried to find a tree with a bird's nest in it and would place my birds near it.

We had another tradition. I discovered one year a long length of bright red (gaudy) tinsel in the bottom of the decorations box. I thought it would be a colorful addition to our tree but was met with less than enthusiastic cooperation from my siblings, who, obviously, had little appreciation for art.

I think I actually sneaked the tinsel onto the tree one year; most years, however, the beautiful string adorned the mantel, camouflaged with several strands of evergreen garland.

We always put icicles on our tree. Mom encouraged, implored, us to place each separate icicle carefully on a tree branch so that it would dangle straight down and resemble a real piece of ice. That plan worked quite well, as long as she was in the room. Left to our own devices, however, icicles flew through the air in great abandon, hitting the tree with as much precision as grits through a floor fan (Don't ask!).

And we always had an angel, sometimes made from a toilet paper tube, lace, aluminum foil and an unfortunate doll's head.

The angel made tree selection important. The top had to be perfectly shaped to hold what we always considered our most important ornament.

We had a few more homemade or old ornaments with much of the color rubbed off by years of use, but they were special in some way or another and we always found room on our tree for them.

I remember it always being cold, though surely it was not since this was, after all, the South. I remember that our tree always seemed to be at least 20 feet tall, though our ceiling was only eight. We always went to church, and I remember spending almost all day one Saturday filling bags with fruit to give to each member of our congregation.

It may be one of the first times I can remember feeling better about doing something for someone else than I would for receiving a gift.

And I remember that with decorating the tree, THE SEASON officially began. We could begin the long period of anticipation, which, in retrospect, was what made the next ten days so special.

Christmas at our house was never extravagant, but it was always wonderful.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com