Taking down the Christmas tree is always bittersweet, isn’t it? There’s a part of me that wants to unpack from our travels, clear out the clutter, purge the unnecessary, and get back into our “routine” as soon as possible. That same routine I couldn’t wait to depart from just weeks ago. Ironic, right?
But as soon as I start undressing the tree, removing each ornament, I’m overcome with a desire to savor, to treasure, and to remember.
I start with the simple ball ornaments. They’re easy to find and easy to remove. Most of mine are shatterproof, too. They get tossed into a big plastic box that was labeled “ornements, ornements, ornements, Merry Christmas!” by an enthusiastic 7 year old. Sometimes when I’m setting up the tree in late November, surrounded by flailing overly-excited children, I think I will leave it only with these. They look pretty and bright. Easy to put on, easy to remove and pack away. That would be much easier wouldn’t it?
But I always continue. The next layer for me are breakable ball ornaments. I bought these because I like the color and I love how they shine. They are more fragile, so I had hung them myself, a little higher. This year, as I’m gently removing them one by one, my thumb goes right through one. Just a tiny cut, no blood, and little thin shards of glass everywhere that are almost impossible to find. Now an empty spot in the box that will remain. I already know what it will remind of next year- the pain of an impending loss in our family. My grandma whom we dearly love, awaiting her last breath in a hospital in another state. That pain is much worse than my thumb and I feel the tears burn my eyes.
The next layer of ornaments I can’t really fit into a category because they are all so different. Every one has a memory and a meaning- we have so many by now and we’ve only been married 11 years. Many were given to us, some bought as souvenirs of travels or markers of big events in our lives. “Baby’s First Christmas.” “Our First Home.” A framed ultrasound from 2009. A blown glass New York City taxi. Many were from Paul’s aunt and uncle as he was growing up, one for each year. His uncle passed away just two years ago, but his aunt continues the tradition now, one for each of the kids. They will have their own collection of ornaments when they’re grown. Some have their own boxes that must be carefully wrapped and returned. Taking these down is the sweet and careful work of re-wrapping and remembering.
Then there are the hand made ornaments: the pictures, the snowflakes, the preschool photos, the hot-glued reindeer. Back when it was November, I was wondering did we really need this many? I was in a rush to get a jump on the holiday season, get my house ready for the friends we would host, prettied up for the pictures we would take. I just wanted to get it just right so I could enjoy it all and take it all in. We take these down in a bit of a rush too, ready to be finished with this chore by now. They go into a bag, stacked on top of everything else.
We remove the garland and lights, our hands pricked by the dry branches. The once feathery cypress is now brittle and cracking, leaving evidence of Christmas past all over the floor. I reach both hands in to steady the top while Paul unscrews the base and the fresh evergreen scent is unexpected and overwhelming. It still smells like it did when we first put it up, even if it doesn’t feel it or look it anymore.
Now is the slow work that doesn’t end with a pretty picture. There is no reward of cozy lights. Only a pile of needles that blend with the toys as I reflect on the year.
There has been simple beauty, for beauty’s sake. There has been fragility, pain. Maybe even a “shattering” or two. There has been great joy and meaning. Fulfillment and celebration.
And now, as I vacuum up the remnants of the once lucent tree, I know that there is also hope. Because isn’t that what the New Year is for? One of my favorite songs says about the New Year that it’s “another chance to catch a glimpse of what is coming true.” Because He’s making all things new. He’s already with us… Immanuel. Its what we’ve celebrated and now cleaned up and put away.
And now, Lord, make us new.
Happy New Year.