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Taking Down the Tree

By Susan Sterling / December 27, 1989

THERE'S something absurd about a Christmas tree after New Year's,'' my friend Stephanie remarked as we stood in her living room, contemplating the fat spruce filled with ornaments that occupied most of the space between the couch and the rocking chair. The Christmas tree, still glittering with tinsel, seemed to her suddenly as irrelevant as a forgotten New Year's resolution from the previous year. She wanted to get on with her life. This isn't a feeling I share. If our family Christmas trees didn't turn brown and dry, I would probably be inclined to keep them up into February.

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Each year I procrastinate. If I promise to take the tree down on Jan. 6, it is inevitably still hugging a corner of the living room on Jan. 8, no longer smelling even faintly of evergreen. Yellowed needles decorate its felt skirt, and if someone brushes against a bough, another shower adds to the pile. My husband begins grumbling about fire hazards. ``I'll get to it,'' I promise him. But there is always something better to do.

Decorating the tree before Christmas is a family affair. We put a Christmas record on the record player, my husband arranges the lights and helps me decorate the top, the children place unbreakable ornaments on the lower branches. As we hang up various elves and angels, balls, and stars, I'm less aware of a particular ornament's individuality or history than of the way it contributes to the total effect of the tree. We talk about where the ornaments should be placed, the smaller ones up high, not too many angels or red balls clumped all together.

Taking the tree down, however, is a job that has always fallen to me. The house is usually quiet, and as I remove each ornament and dust it with a tissue as my mother taught me (``so it will still be shiny next year'') I find myself thinking about each figure in a way that I haven't had time for in the rush of Christmas preparations.

The ornaments after Christmas are a little like Proust's Madeline, evoking memories of the past. Many of the figures which now decorate our tree hung on my family's Christmas tree when I was growing up. Some of these my own mother had when she was a girl - delicate painted birds with feathery tails, long glass icicles, tiny silver and blue balls. I carefully wrap the most fragile of these and lay them on the piano to be put in boxes later.

I remove two Santas and a gingerbread man, and then take down a large green ball hanging from an inconspicuous branch, an ornament no one but me could love. Over the years the ball has lost its shine, and one can now only just make out the name ``Snuff'' written in silvery letters across the middle. Snuff was a black cocker spaniel, our family dog when I was growing up. I hardly ever think of him except when I am dusting off his ornament and he seems to bound again out of my childhood.

After I put these ornaments away, I remove figures that evoke the more recent past - a barn from the year my husband and I lived out in the country, a cable car from one of the years we were in San Francisco, two small sleds with 1980 and 1983 written on them, the years our son and daughter were born. There are six silver snowflakes which my grandmother, who loved beautiful things, gave me one Christmas, and three cloth angels with filigree wings. There are the straw stars and wooden elves which I bought one year at the N"ornberg Christmas market in West Germany, and a tiny basket of violets molded of wax that my husband's landlady in Munich gave him the Christmas he lived with her.