The tree is on the side of the road.

The needles have been swept up. The ornaments are stored, the Nativity scene boxed, the light strands carefully rewound. 

The center of the room where the tree stood all month is conspicuously empty. “Looks great,” my husband says with a tone of accomplishment. He does not come from a sentimental family like I do.

“It’s so sad,” I say. “Christmas is over.”

***

Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year. As a kid, of course, it’s a time of magic. Natural laws are broken in order for mystical beings to deliver presents especially for you. Songs and movies reinforce the excitement as the days count down to the sacred climax of Christmas morning. You nearly leap for joy every time an adult asks if you’re ready for Santa to arrive. 

Even when you learn who brings the presents Christmas morning, a trace of magic remains. The traditions, the food, the family. After I moved out, I was still the enthusiastic Christmas decorator in my dorm halls and rental apartments. Bags of extra lights and mantel trimmings came with me to new cities. I embroidered my roommates’ names on stockings and competed with myself to outdo last years’ perfect gifts. I blasted Mannheim Steamroller CDs over Thanksgiving break with my mom as we hung up decades-old ornaments. 

Putting up the tree is a boisterous event. Taking down the tree is a silent resignation to January. 

The colorful lights that illuminated the long January nights get put away. The enchanting December snow gets dirty along the roadside. Work starts up again after New Year’s Day, and normal life begins its grind. 

What do you fill that little emptiness with after Christmas is over?

A more pious one than I would insist that the post-Christmas blues are misguided. That the newborn king we spent Advent awaiting has finally arrived. That the celebration of Jesus’ birth should be always ongoing in our hearts. That the manger is empty because he grew up and saved us.

This is all beautiful and true, but I’d be lying if I said that changed a thing about how I feel after Christmas. I can’t claim that Jesus is the main reason for my love of the holiday season. I’ve been commercialized just like the rest of us. And aside from a few moments during Lent, Christ’s continued presence on earth isn’t particularly tangible to me from February to November. 

I like the lights. I like the gift-shopping. I like the colorful paper and the piney smell. I love the sweaters and the songs and the lists and the elaborate meals. I just love Christmastime, in all of its pagan and commercial and irreligious cultural packaging. 

***

My dad loved Christmas and had his decorating plan down to a science. Open up old boxes of Sheppard Christmas lights and you’ll find 1990 diagrams of which bush gets which strands, where to hang the star over the yard Nativity, and how to give the angel an aura of glory with a few extra lights coiled around the shrubbery. Christmas morning home videos featured us kids sitting on duct-taped markers around the tree to make sure we stayed in-frame, with my dad’s voice directing us from behind the tripod and reminding us to show our presents to the camera.

My dad died two months before Christmas, and celebrating the holiday that year felt like going through the motions in an alternate universe. My sister and I drove to the tree farm alone. We picked out a beautiful blue spruce, which was always his favorite. The nice man working there told us, “I read about what happened in the paper. The tree’s on us this year.” 

I was eight and had a habit of naming my Christmas trees. This one I called Abraham, and I made him my best friend that lonely Christmas. I told him about my grief and admired his beauty in our living room, next to my dad’s empty recliner. I was still excited for all the presents, but after they were opened that year, the tree looked bare with nothing under it. As New Year’s Day passed, I knew what was coming. More needles started falling, and my mom gently said, “I think it’s time to take it down.”

My attachment to the tree was deep. I pleaded and sobbed, but still, Abraham was dragged to the side of the road. I asked if I could leave one ornament or even a ribbon on his branches so he could remember me wherever he went.

My mom and my brother said no. “Nothing else can go with the tree,” they said. “It’s going to become mulch and fertilize the ground. It will help other things grow.”

That was little comfort to me then. Even now, I feel a sinking feeling when I see a Christmas tree on the side of the road. The most wonderful time of the year is finished. This year felt especially melancholy, being the second in a row that I couldn’t celebrate with my family.

But sometimes I think about mulch, if that really is what happens to our Christmas trees. I think about fertilizer. I wonder if the joy of the holiday gives some nutrients to help us make it through the rest of the year. I think about life from death, joy from sorrow. The sun staying up for a minute or so longer each day. 

I don’t like January. Sometimes I still feel like that little girl mourning the end of Christmas. But I’ll try to take some of that holiday joy with me in my roots. I’ll try to look for reasons the rest of the year can be wonderful, too.

10 Comments

  1. Shirley

    I remember the joy of putting up our tree when I was a child. It was sad for me when we took it down. I didn’t know my joy would be even greater when we took our kids out each year to cut down a tree. The joy they had trimming it and how sad they were when it was time to let it go. My oldest daughter says in her memory everything was magical.

    Reply
  2. Teresa Peterman

    Oh Laura,
    What a heartfelt, beautifully written piece! I can picture your Dad behind the camera and still picture his handwriting and detailed diagrams of things. He was a genius with such sentiment! You have that too! I love the fertilizer metaphor.
    Love you!

    Reply
  3. pat hascall

    This was a beautiful story Laura – thank you for sharing. I miss your Dad still and I share your sentiments about taking the tree down when Christmas season is over.

    Reply
  4. Lola Miller

    Hi Laura, I love your honesty of your feelings in your writing, I think many of us feel that hype before Christmas and the January blues after it’s over.
    I’m not fond of the cold temperatures and the quite of my job I feel it until the weather improves. I’ve been making.a conscious effort to find beauty in winter. The purity of the snow that hasn’t been walked on yet, the diamonds when the sun is shining on it just right.,
    I live in Cass City where your parents pastored at the Methodist church. I have fond memories of those days gone by.Bless your heart.

    Reply
  5. Janet

    That was beautiful Laura. Outstanding writing. It brought back warm memories of your dad.

    Reply
    • Barbara Johnson

      Laura,
      What wonderful memories of days gone by, now new memories and traditions start to take shape.
      The first year we spent Christmas in Florida was so different, we had coffee and pastries on the beach and watched the sun come up. We made a sandman, dressed him with a hat,scarf, seashells for eyes and nose.
      Then we watched family’s walking on the beach stop and enjoy this little piece of our new traditions.
      Palm trees become the trees we decorate, our golf cart is a work of art, each family trying to outdo the other. New memories, but never forgetting all the wonderful memories stored in photo album’s and deep within my heart.
      Thank you for always being open and honor, love you.
      Barb Johnson ⛄

      Reply
  6. Sue Norton

    I love your writing Laura. I actually saw a discarded Christmas tree by the side of the road this morning and had these same thoughts. How sad. But, your thoughts about Christmas tree “fertilizer” gives me hope.

    Reply
  7. Darlene Leiva

    Your writing is outstanding Laura, it reminds me of some of the really excellent things your dad shared at the Bowl. Thank you for sharing the gift of your writing, and yourself. Brought back some great memories of family outings to pick out a Christmas tree, which only happened because of Dick Parkinson’s patience! You’ve blessed my day Laura…thank you! Darlene Leiva

    Reply
  8. Tom Kelly

    Family Christmas traditions can make for fond memories and I can say that my experiences echo a lot of the joyous feelings you shared. Growing up Catholic, my mom ensured we understood the real meaning of the season. I look forward to the Christmas season every year and was glad to read about your experiences. Keep up the awesome writing. Take care

    Reply

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