One of the great joys of the holiday season is decorating the Christmas tree. For many families, selection and purchase of a Christmas tree is an annual tradition. Thanksgiving Day is the unofficial beginning of tree sales and tree decorating.

There are many varieties of trees available for purchase. Some of the more popular ones are Leyland cypress, red cedar, Virginia pine, Fraser fir, Arizona cypress, white pine, and blue spruce. There is a tree to fit everyone's taste. The most commonly planted Christmas tree in Mississippi is the Leyland cypress.

Precut Christmas trees are available from a variety of sources: garden centers, nurseries, and local retail lots. With all these precut trees available how do you know if you are getting a good one? Here are a few things to look for when purchasing a precut tree.

Purchase your tree early so that it can go in water closer to the time when it was cut. Try to buy trees are that locally grown rather than those that have been shipped from Minnesota, North Carolina, or other far away places. Locally grown trees are usually fresher and less expensive.

Look for a tree with a healthy, green appearance and few dead or brown needles. If a tree looks wilted, do not buy it. The base of the trunk should be straight and the bottom 6 to 8 inches free of branches to allow placement in the tree stand. Avoid trees with splits in the trunk. These trees most likely will have dried out and will not take up water.

Run your hand along a branch. Needles should be fresh and flexible and should not come off in your hand. Next bump the trunk of the tree on the ground. If green needles fall off the tree, it is not fresh. A few brown needles will fall from the tree but that is natural.

Select a tree that is at least one foot shorter than the ceiling height in the room where you will display your tree. Eight foot trees in homes with eight foot ceilings just do not work out when you put them into a stand.

If you want a truly fresh tree, get one at a choose-and-cut farm. These trees are also usually cheaper than at retail lots. Most farms have several different species from which to choose. The farms provide hand saws or saw the tree you select, and will help you load your tree. For a list of choose-and-cut farms check the Mississippi Market Bulletin or call your local extension serve office.

No matter where you get your tree, you should make a fresh cut across the bottom, about 1 inch above the original cut when you get it home. This removes any clogged wood that may not readily absorb water. Immediately place the tree in a stand with a large reservoir of water. Depending upon the size, species, and location of the tree, it may absorb a gallon of water per day. Your tree should be checked frequently and water replenished as necessary.

A frequent question: is should you put additional substances (aspirin, bleach, soda, etc) in the water to preserve tree freshness? The best additive is plain old tap water. Keep the tree properly watered and it will be reasonably fire-resistant throughout the holidays.

The first Christmas tree retail lot was set up in New York City in 1851. Since that time Americans have been enjoying the tradition of a live tree to celebrate the holiday season. Each year over 32 million Christmas trees are sold. Artificial trees are nice, but remember "nothing is as good as the real thing!"