By Abbie Tilden

The Christmas tree is one of the focal points of the holiday celebration. It's where we gather with our families, where Santa brings our gifts, where we find light during the darkest nights of the year.  It's a tradition that goes back for centuries.  A fresh, live tree is a beautiful experience to see, touch and smell.

Despite the myths you hear, fresh trees can be safe and beautiful throughout the season if treated with care.   Most Christmas trees nowadays come from farms and nurseries.  The trees are grown as a sustainable crop, and many farmers work hard to use environmentally friendly methods.  By buying your tree from a local farm or nursery, or visiting a reputable tree lot, you can help support these practices, know that your tree is the freshest you can possibly get and create a wonderful tradition with your family.

Finding your tree

If you can visit a cut-your-own tree farm or nursery, make a day out of it!  Take the family along, because the search for a perfect tree needs as many eyes as possible.  Dress for the weather and don't forget to expect holes and mud - these are working farms.  Visit the National Association of Christmas Tree Association's web page for a directory

Look for trees with green needles and full foliage; when you run your hand along a branch, those green needles should stay put. If they all fall off in your hand, keep looking.

Once you've selected and cut your tree, give it a few good raps against the ground:  any brown needles on the inside (previous year's growth that the tree needs to shed to make room for new needles) should fall off.  Don't skip this step, or you'll be carrying all those old needles into your house! 

When you get your tree home

If you're not putting your tree up right away, leave it outside in a bucket of water.  Make sure the water level is over the cut, and don't let it dip below, or your tree will dry out.

When you select the location where you will display your tree, make sure it's away from any heat sources, like radiators or fireplaces.  Trees like cold temperatures and high humidity, so keep that in mind.

Make sure your tree stand is the right size for your tree, and has enough space to hold sufficient water.  Your stand should hold one quart of water for every inch of the stem's diameter.

Before you put your tree in the holder, cut off the bottom inch of the trunk.  This creates a fresh surface, free of dried sap, to allow the tree to drink.

This is important:  keep it watered. 

Your tree is going to consume a lot of water, especially in the first few days, so keep an eye on it.  The water level should never drop below the bottom of the tree.  If that happens, you will need to make a new cut, because the dried sap that will accumulate prevents the tree from taking in water. 

A dried out tree is a fire hazard. 

 Keeping it well watered is the single most important step in avoiding a disaster.  Check on the water at least twice a day. A sap seal can form in just a few hours, and if it happens after you've decorated your tree it'll be much more difficult to make a fresh cut.

Decorating your tree

Go over all the lights and decorations you're planning on using;  do not use anything with frayed wires.  Look for the UL seal on any electrical decorations.  Make sure none of the bulbs is broken, and that bulbs or any other heat-emitting decorations aren't directly touching any branches or needles, which will just make the tree dry out faster.

Homemade paper  decorations can also be a fire hazard, so make sure they're a safe distance from lights as well. 

Remember that tinsel can be hazardous to small children and household pets, so use it sparingly and keep all dangerous decorations out of the reach of your smallest loved ones.

Make sure you can easily turn the lights on your tree off.  Never leave your tree lit while it is unattended. When you are going to bed, or leaving the house (even for just a few minutes!) make sure to turn the tree off.

Do not ever use candles.  They can cause fires in an instant.  The risks are just not worth it. 

After the holidays

Once your tree is no longer taking in water, it is time to take it down.  Don't wait until all the needles have dropped; once the tree is not hydrated, it becomes a fire hazard. 

You have several options in disposing of your tree.  Many communities schedule tree pick-up days, or you can arrange to have your tree chipped and use it for mulch and compost.  You could also set the tree up in your backyard as a refuge for birds and wildlife. Just make sure it's propped up securely, and hang suet and bird food to provide food during the rest of the winter.