Today I marked the official end to our holiday season by taking down the Christmas tree. Susan and I have always left the tree up through New Year's Day, turning on the lights ever night. If we don't take it down on January 1st, we quit turning on the lights at that time--sort of the Christmas version of unplugging the tree from holiday-life-support (of course, it's an artificial tree, so there's really not any life to support, but you get the point).
For me, a Christmas tree is a tangible collection of wonderful memories. Every year we add at least one new ornament to the tree--a tradition that we didn't actually begin in the year of our marriage, unfortunately, but was something we began doing in the early 1980s. However, our tree has more than just our memories on it; there are several ornaments that date back to my parents' tree and my own childhood. Placing those ornaments on the tree each year establishes a solid link to all those Christmases past.
I used to think that it would be great to just leave the Christmas tree up year 'round... and at one point, we did indeed leave one small tree up in a corner of the house, decorated with rustic ornaments. After a few years, though, I thought better of it and took it down. I finally realized that Christmas is so strong in our hearts because it is a combination of wonderful memories of the past and hopeful dreams of the future. It is something that must remain a highlight of the year; it simply can't be an everyday thing. We'd like to believe that extending Christmas year round--even if just by keeping one tree on display throughout the year--would extend the wonders of the Christmas season across the calendar, but it doesn't. Instead, it removes the uniqueness--rather than uplifting the rest of the year, it serves to diminish Christmas by making commonplace one of its most distinctive trappings. We don't elevate the rest of the year, we merely draw Christmas down closer to their level.
So the tree must come down. It must be done in a specific order. First, the dozens of Christmas-red double-candles connected by an uncut wick come off the tree; then the glass icicles; then the elongated Santa and snowman icicle-surrogates; then the Santa ornaments; then the "Here Comes Santa" series that Susan gave me every year for the duration of its run; then the softer fabric ornaments; then the rustic ornaments; and finally, at the very end, the cherished ornaments of my childhood.
For years, I packed them in cardboard boxes with lids, each layers separated by crumpled tissue paper or plastic bags. Then, a few years ago, I bought a multi-layered egg-carton sort of box at Target with separate compartments for each ornament, and I tried that for a couple of years. It seemed sterile, however, and uncaring; finally, I abandoned the box and returned to the method we used flawlessly for years.
As I finished with the tree, sweeping up the space it had until recently occupied prior to moving the chair back into place (each year, the green mission-style chair must abandon its place in the corner of the sun room to make room for the Christmas tree), I realized that this year I had not embraced Christmas to the degree that I would have liked. I think that might be one of the detrimental effects of being a retailer: while my heart yearns to enjoy the holidays fully, to cherish each minute of the season, to devote myself to finding just the right gifts for all who are close to me, I find myself pulled away by the ever-increasing demands of retailing. The store demands more time, the customers deserve more help, and the constant pattern of sell-verify-reorder-restock-and-repeat transform the holiday into an unrelenting whirlwind of activity.
I miss those childhood years when school let out for Christmas and all my waking time was dominated by the holiday--the foods, the music, the programs, the family, the laughter, the lights, the excitement of it all. I miss the college years when Susan and I were newlyweds, when classes at Berry ended at Thanksgiving, and when our jobs had no demands on our time or our minds from the moment we left work each day, leaving us free to reinvent the joys of Christmas as a young couple. I miss the days when Mom and Dad made Christmas an event for all of us, bringing us all together at their house for a joyous two-day recognition of the holiday.
And today, as I was talking to my friend Charles, I shared with him a realization that has come to me gradually: the bulk of my Christmases are behind me. I have been given sixty Christmases so far--some wondrous, many memorable, and a few rushed and not wholly appreciated. I don't have sixty more Christmases ahead of me; I would like not to squander those that remain...