The doorball rang. Too quickly, I opened the door to find the cute little kid from across the street, holding an unwieldy package of stapled paper. Bursting with joy, he couldn't wait to tell me that my poinsettia had arrived! Huzzah!

I'd ordered the plant back before Halloween, when Christmas seemed impossibly distant, and the chance to help the cute little kid support his school seemed delightfully immediate.

Hoping that he took my speechlessness for reciprocal joy, I took the package, murmured my thanks, unwrapped the plant and proceeded to mark the calendar date, so as to know just how many days pass this year before it dies or, worse, lives.

Poinsettias occupy the strangest of horticultural niches. They are a symbol of Christmas, undeniably gorgeous with their canopy of scarlet blossoms. But once the season is over, they seem out of place, guests who have overstayed their welcome. Yet these are not cut flowers kept alive only by the grace of water. A poinsettia is a living plant, and every instinct tells me that its continued existence must be nurtured, encouraged, celebrated.

Or at least that I keep the leaves from dropping until the holidays have come and gone. You see the mixed feelings here: I can't let it die before Christmas and don't really want it to live after that. If past experience is any indication, though, Santa will either gaze with curiosity upon a plant with bare stems, or my poinsettia will prove to be the Betty White of houseplants, demonstrating an unflagging verve for life, month after month after month.

In any case, I'm on the poinsettia's side right now, which brought me to the University of Minnesota Extension Service's guidelines for its care. Here's the drill:

"Poinsettias require bright light and should be kept away from drafts. A temperature between 65º and 70º F is ideal. Avoid temperatures below 60º and above 75º F. Keep the plants well-watered but do not overwater."

The temperature thing I can handle; we've compromised on 68 degrees in our household. The dealbreaker here is that fine line between overwatering and underwatering. For I contend that the line is very fine.

For you overachievers out there, you might as well go for broke and see if you can get your poinsettia to flower again. Again from the Extension Service:

"Starting October 1, exclude poinsettia from artificial light for 16 hours; either cover with a light-proof box each evening or place in an unlighted room or closet. Expose to full light during the day. Use fertilizer when new growth is visible. After 10 weeks of short days, the plants should reflower."

Huzzah! Right?