Taking Down the Tree

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.

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.

Down on the lower branches hang the ornaments our two children have made over the years in school - silver bells made from paper cups covered in foil, pine cones dangling from loops of red yarn, stars cut from red and green construction paper. Somewhere near the bottom I discover the candy canes the school bus driver gives out every year, apparently forgotten by my children. I set these aside and remove a small turtle woven of green yarn that friends gave our daughter the Christmas she was just beginning to walk. ``She needs an ornament to take on and off the tree herself,'' they said. These friends are now living in Spain for two years; through the turtle, I feel connected with them.

As the ornaments come off, the imperfections of the tree are once again revealed, the bare spots, a broken branch here and there. Before we had children, my husband and I would sometimes spend an entire weekend driving from lot to lot, searching for the perfect Christmas tree. Standing out in the snow with a howling baby, though, we discovered that all trees begin to look acceptable. We no longer care if the branches are asymmetrical, as long as the tree is about the right size and relatively full. Each Christmas tree creates its own beauty, and I'm surprised now to be reminded that I once saw this particular one as flawed.

When the ornaments are off, I remove the strands of lights and coil them in their boxes. Always then I discover one or two items that I've missed. There are two small ornaments that I almost lose every year - dull rose onion shapes with white tips that were undoubtedly quite dazzling when they were new 50 years ago. Now they have broken bits near their hangers and are unbelievably ugly. Unable each year to part with them, I hang them near the back of the tree.

By this time, needles cover the floor, thick as autumn leaves on the lawn. I struggle to find space in the tattered boxes, several of which have been holding Christmas ornaments for almost 70 years. On the covers their contents are listed, in the firm handwriting of my grandfather, whom I never knew. The boxes are made of thin brown cardboard and are held together with old bits of string. The corner edges are frayed and torn. Still, the little pineapple balls that my grandfather bought for the family Christmas tree fit perfectly into their little compartments.

Once the tree is stripped, my husband and I lift it out of the Christmas tree holder and drag it out to the edge of the street. There it shares the fate of all the other discarded spruces and hemlocks and pines which are waiting for the garbage truck to come and cart them away to the town dump. As our tree rests against the snow bank, stripped of all but a few strands of tinsel, it's difficult to remember its splendor of a few hours before. Where it once stood in the house, the carpet is a pool of needles. The living room looks unbearably empty for a day or so. Then we get on with our lives.

Like most of our neighbors in Maine, though, we will leave the Christmas wreath on our front door until the snow begins melting in earnest in mid-March. Winter can be long and dreary here in the north; we need to keep at least one lingering reminder of the brightness of the Christmas season just past.

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