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Putting Away Christmas

December 29, 2014

Both rituals belong to me—decorating for Christmas, taking it all down again. Just as I took over the checkbook temporarily twenty-eight years ago and I’m still doing it, the Christmas tree by default is mine. From time to time, I get a little help. When the grandchildren were too small to be any kind of real help, they helped, leaving the bottom of the tree heavy with ornaments, marking their height as surely as pencil marks on the closet door. Most of the time, though, I’m the one dragging the boxes out of the attic, testing strands of lights, lifting out each ornament, remembering its origin.

Never one for decorator trees, mine has the handmade ornaments—construction paper and Polaroid pictures from third grade, cross stitched and smocked ornaments marking my hobby phases. The Beatles, Shrek, and the Pink Panther hang alongside the Christ child. Many of the ornaments were handmade gifts, more beautiful because of the giver than for face value. Long ago, I learned that the best souvenir from any far off place is an ornament small enough to fit into my purse.

Some years—the alternating years when the kids go to the other grandmother’s house—few people even see the tree but us and the neighbors bringing the loads of sweets we swap back and forth. It’s more for me now. For us.

Taking everything down after the holidays is just as much work, though perhaps more satisfying because I can tell when I’m finished. I may find the occasional ball fallen and rolled beneath the sofa in February, but completion is obvious. When I decorate, I have a hard time making myself stop. I remind myself of my World Lit professor who looked as though she just kept putting on lipstick all day long until what was once the shape of her mouth began to resemble a circus clown’s. My tree’s like that too. Just a few more balls—the one from the Biltmore, the Christmas Story leg lamp that plays, “Fra-gi-le!” when I open its box.

Today I have no Christmas music playing. I’ve retired “O Holy Night!” and I’ve moved on to Jerry Jeff singing “Sangria Wine.” I give thanks that I inherited the tradition that leaving the tree up after New Year’s brings bad luck. I know folks who believe otherwise. I think their mothers just didn’t want to fool with the clean up yet. By the time I am cooking my hog jowl and collard greens, the house will be swept free of Santa figurines and rein deer. This year, I’ll even try to pack the tree skirt I uncovered too late in a place where I can find it next Christmas, so I won’t have to resort to using a tablecloth again next year.

Before I finish this wearisome ritual, before Max comes to drag the tree—a fire hazard now—out to his truck, leaving a trail of needles and glitter, I’ll read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and Davis Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” once more, evoking my favorite line from Steel Magnolias: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

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