ABOUT this time every year, the pressure mounts on the chief usher of the White House.
Gary Walters has to pick a Christmas tree - not just any tree, but the perfect tree. It has to stand exactly 18-1/2 feet tall, with skillfully trimmed branches. It must have presidential stature - to withstand the weight of 5,000 lights and over 8,000 ornaments - but also the familiar warmth of a Bing Crosby Christmas song. And it must evoke just the right holiday spirit.
Of course, it should also be able to survive any random attacks from a rambunctious Socks, the First Cat.
Locating such a tree is not an easy task.
The Clinton's standard-bearing conifer, which will be decorated this weekend, puts the sleuthing powers of Mr. Walters to the test each year. The search takes him from Oregon to Appalachia and to scores of Christmas-tree farmers eager to gain the cachet of having provided the First Tree.
This year, after scouring both coasts, Walters finally headed south to Ashe County, N.C., and Ron Hudler's farm.
West Jefferson, where Mr. Hudler owns the Atwood, Dollar & Hudler Tree Farm, is a rock-solid town where it's common for people to throw down lifetime roots. One-thousand families live tucked among the rural mountains of the Tarheel State. Some children have the same schoolteachers that their grandparents did.
It's home not only to Hudler, but to many of his fellow cultivators of this season's evergreen stock.
North Carolina's $90-million Christmas-tree industry has more than quadrupled in the past 15 years. About 5 million trees come from western North Carolina. The state leads the nation in sales of the Fraser fir, a popular tree that is native to the Appalachian Mountains.
For Christmas-tree farmers and their farmhands, this is the busiest time of year. They put in 15- to 18-hour days, chopping down their wares and shipping them out on waiting flatbed trucks.
Hudler is accustomed to accolades for his trees. His farm ships 80,000 trees across the nation. In 1993, one of his evergreens took first place in the national Christmas-tree competition.
But this year was a particularly exciting one. Much of his attention was devoted to one tree - a 20-foot, 700-pound Fraser fir - that chief usher Walters designated as just the specimen for the White House Blue Room.
With the media gathered 'round like carollers, Hudler's brothers cut down the tree. After several minutes of sawing, they finally gave the evergreen a swift kick, sending the towering specimen to the ground with a swoosh and a flurry of needles.
Dressed in their best bib overalls, the brothers gazed proudly on their handiwork. ''It's not just for us,'' Ron Hudler said. ''It's for the whole country.''
The moment in the camera's eye belied the tree's long history. ''Christmas trees take years of your life to grow,'' Ron Hudler says. ''The average six-footer would be about eight years old. [This tree] was planted April 25, 1980. That's 16 seasons of growth.''
The sweet-smelling fir was presented to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a horse-drawn wagon, like a holiday package, earlier this week. Volunteers will spend this weekend decorating the tree with countless lights and decorations. When the Clintons return from their trip to Europe Sunday, the Blue Room tree, along with 21 others, will adorn their adopted home.
Ron Hudler says that it was an honor to bring a tree to the president's house. His brother Bill conceded that going to the White House was a bit overwhelming. ''I never thought Christmas trees would get us to go presidential,'' he said.
Meanwhile, folks here are settling back into their daily routine.''It's year-round Christmas work here,'' Bill Hudler said, ''with a month of chaos right up to Christmas day.''
Christmas should be the first ''real quiet day''' he says.