With 20 days remaining before Christmas, holiday tree sales seem brisk, at least if my frequent although admittedly amateur and non-scientific surveys are at all accurate.

I perform the surveys as I drive around town, noting the activity in the Christmas tree lots on street corners here and there. I admit that technique leaves me quite a ways from the action. Even so, I'm seeing some fine-looking spruce and pine trees this season as I drive past at 25 mph, and it looks as if the merchants are fairly busy displaying, dealing and loading trees into pickup beds and atop SUV roofs.

I tell you what, it makes me a little nostalgic for the days when I took my family searching for our Christmas tree. It's one of those family activities that always seem far, far more satisfying in distant memory than it was in reality.

The distant memory has a Hallmark Christmas movie quality to it. The evening is warm for early December. Mom, dad and the kids are smiling, all wearing brightly colored wool gloves and fancy red scarves and stocking caps. We walk past two or three trees before we spy - all of us at the same instant - the perfect tree. (Background music swells.) The tree we find is taller than I am, every branch straight and strong, the shape an ideal cone with nary a bare spot to worry about hiding on the back side against the wall once we get it home. Best of all, it's moist, with a fragrant scent that we can just tell will last right through New Year's Day without a single needle dropping on the carpet, even when we pull it from the stand and drag it out the door to be disposed of as habitat for fish or pheasants or something noble like that.

Now, I ask you: Is that a Christmas tree story worth a full-length holiday movie? You could cast any old actors in the key roles, and you wouldn't even need to work hard on the dialogue. A cynic might say that's how those movies actually are put together. I'm not saying that, you understand. I'm saying it's the sort of thing a critic who lacked the Christmas spirit might say.

After I've enjoyed those memories each year, I come down to earth and remember the real deal with my family and Christmas trees. The real thing often was a cold, ice-covered blacktop lot, a brisk wind chilling the evening, at least one of the kids saying they could no longer feel their feet (their mom told them to wear the heavy socks in their winter boots. I heard her) and me and Nancy handling every tree in the lot as we tried to find just one that we could place in our living room, if we put it deep into a corner so the bare spots on two sides would be covered. By the time we wrestled our tree home, half the needles would be lying in the back of the station wagon. The rest of the needles would, within three or four days in the living room, be spread over the floor like a green-and-brown shag rug, the aroma of pine needles would be undetectable, and the state fire marshal would be knocking on the door with an offer to feature us in a safety message as "the family who didn't do things right.''

After some years of that sort of experience, we broke down and bought a permanent tree. We don't search for it each year when Christmas rolls around. We don't worry about getting it to drink water (which none of our real trees ever did, anyway). We know exactly how many strings of lights and how many decorations it will hold. And we know where to store it away after the holidays.

All in all, the move to a permanent tree was a good thing. Once in a while, though, I remember how pleased the kids always were when we finally got home with a real tree, needles or not, dry or not, bare spots or not. Moments like that were hard to beat.