We put up our Christmas tree today, and I love the smell of pine, the forest-y mess of the needles and dust. But every year I put up a tree, I remember vividly my childhood Christmas job with a very different tree.

It was probably in the early seventies that we went to Sears as a family, and selected our artificial tree. Later fake trees got more realistic, but our plastic-bristle tree looked great to me decked out with lights, tinsel, and all the ornaments. Of course I was quite involved in all the decorating (a skill my parents noticed and encouraged early, though perhaps they gave me too much autonomy when they let me pick the swirly yellow-brown indoor/outdoor carpet for our living room, but that’s another story). But that wasn’t the part I loved most.

No, my favorite job was assembling our tree. After it came out of the attic, several wooden dowels had to be connected into the base. Then the fun part: each branch end was color-coded, so that the widest (blue) branches went around the bottom rung, then the purple, the red, the orange, the yellow, the green. I have no doubt that the guy who designed the gay rainbow flag had the same Sears & Roebuck tree that we did, and took the same delicious pleasure in fitting together the mechanical pieces and arranging the boughs into an artfully “natural” tree ready for a ton of glitter and glass.

Having watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” I know full well that the “real” meaning of Christmas isn’t the decorations, or the presents. It’s the spirit of the season. It’s the loving people we surround ourselves with and celebrate. But the little rituals sure offer a quick entry into those feelings. Just remembering opening the boxes of decorations brings back so much happiness, such a vivid sense of the wonder and possibilities I felt as a child. I was as greedy for styrofoam T-Rexes and magic kits as anybody, but I also felt safe and inspired, loving our little world, and the engineering miracle that made our perfect tree.