The only thing I enjoy more than putting up our Christmas tree is taking it down.
I am by nature a contrarian, a rebel, whatever the opposite is of being a joiner. On my more pessimistic days some might even go so far to call me a hater. But for a few magical weeks each year, all of that goes out the window. Unabashedly, enthusiastically, I love Christmas.
I love buying the perfect gift. I love driving around town and running critical analysis of our neighbors’ light displays with my kids. I love celebrating my friends and colleagues without sounding cloy or crazy. I love knowing every song on the radio or artificial intelligence playlist. The lights, the cheer, the togetherness. And the eggnog – I really, really love eggnog.
But then, inevitably, it turns. The eggnog yes, that doesn’t take long to turn rancid, but everything else too. The cheer turns to panic as Christmas Eve approaches with time and money running low. The togetherness turns to smotherness as seemingly everyone’s eggnog gets spiked a little too strong. Alexa runs out of hits and starts playing those c-list jingle belled tunes or that one Mariah Carey song on perpetual repeat. And the clutter! My god, the clutter – Christmas is for neatfreaks what the buffet line is for germophobes (and you guessed it, I’m a neat freak).
I exaggerate, of course. Sort of. I’m one of the fortunate few that actually enjoys time with my extended family (though is it really that few, or is that just a media trope?). I look forward to Christmas, and to the two weeks away from the office that higher education so graciously gives me each year (even if I’m working from home through most of it). I look forward to the excitement, to the giving, and yes, even to the chaos. Sort of.
Growing up in a Greek Orthodox household, we used to keep the tree up until epiphany, a holiday we supposedly observed but I only truly experienced while living in Greece (there aren’t a lot of chase the cross into the water races happening here yonder in California). But at some point along the way my mom got wise to the patriarchy and church just wasn’t so important to her anymore, and as a result the tree wasn’t either. The dead pine’s average lifespan started shrinking until she finally stopped bothering with a tree at all, just a mountain of presents for the grandkids with a star perched on top.
When I first struck out on my own, I was determined to make Christmas last. I picked out a tree for Thanksgiving, kept it up until the needles piled all around it like prickly little snowdrifts. I made a big deal of putting it up and made a sad day of taking it down. Now though, with two littlish kids and one biggish job and a whole lot of other things to do, there’s no way I’ll have time to clean up that ghost of Christmas past once I open the doors to a new semester at work and to whatever new phase of development is just around the corner for my kids.
I also don’t need to wait around for Christmas to feel festive enough to celebrate. Life is good. There’s no reason not to celebrate every day, a little bit here, a little bit there. The kids are awake – celebrate a new day! The kids are asleep – celebrate a time to relax! I made it to work on time – celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! There is joy ready to leap from nearly every moment, so much so that the joy of Christmas can turn quite quickly into too much of a good thing. Christmas for me now is like a good punk rock song – fast, loud, a little disorienting, and over nearly as soon as it started.
And so a new ritual is born. We get a tree a week or two before Christmas. We decorate. On Christmas morning we play and we carouse and we make giant messes. We light a fire and we sleep off the excitement of it all.
Over the following week, we find space for the new books and toys while sneaking out the old stuff no one uses anymore. We clear way in the closets for new clothes and set aside the new hand me downs. We dust the mantle and recycle the Christmas cards. And to celebrate the end of another good year, we take down the tree.
We clean it up and move on to the next. Which is about as close to resolutions as I get: Make the most of what you do today. Clean it up well so you can make the most of whatever it is you do tomorrow.
As I clear out the playrooms and the bookshelves and the dresser drawers, as I wrap up the kids’ construction paper ornaments that I’d like to make last forever, I take moment to touch these memories. To feel in a tangible and visceral way where we’ve been over the past year or two – the books we’ve read, the stories we’ve written, the little socks we’ve worn all the way through to the last little threads. To think about where it might be nice to go sometime in the not too distant future as we read our new books and think up new stories (and do it all in nice thick new pair of Christmas socks).
Then I take the boxes to the garage, the bags to goodwill, the tree to the curb. Christmas is gone – celebrate! The year is over – celebrate! Finally we get back to normal – celebrate, celebrate, celebrate.