Is there any more melancholy task than taking down Christmas decorations? Last Friday, as I put ornaments back in their boxes, unstrung lights, and vacuumed everywhere (those evergreen needles travel surprisingly far!), I wondered why this chore makes me feel so heavy-hearted. While I love Christmas, I don’t really want a shedding tree in my living room all year long. I don’t really want (or need) four different kinds of homemade cookies inhabiting my kitchen all year long. I don’t really want a calendar bursting with concerts and parties and extra church services all year long. I certainly don’t want winter weather all year long. So why is it so hard to let go of this season?
I think it’s hard because the rituals associated with Christmas serve as markers. Markers of time passing. Of children growing. Of people changing. The clumsy, too-large ornaments my kids made in preschool hail from such a different time in our family life. On most ordinary days, without holiday trappings, I’m not so aware of how far we’ve traveled from that time. We take most of our family photos at Christmas and during other celebrations (birthdays, graduations), so these times become signposts for the twists and turns of our family’s journey—that was the first Christmas with three children, the last Christmas in our old house, the first year everyone stayed awake til midnight on New Years Eve. Rituals for Christmas and other special days offer space and time to be together in a way that is increasingly rare in a family with three kids in school and various activities. We spend every New Years Eve eating fondue (cheese with veggies for dinner, chocolate with fruit for dessert), then making a fire and playing a game. How often through the rest of the year do all five of us stay in the same room for several hours, doing something together? Not often.
Somy heart is heavy when Christmas passes not so much because I want holiday decorations and traditions to last longer. My heart is heavy because the trappings and traditions around holidays force me to notice that time marches onward, we are all changing, and none of this is permanent. Five years ago, we still had a preschooler, so our New Years Eve game playing was limited to a couple of rounds of Zingo before putting everyone to bed by 9:00. This year, we played a rousing game of Life that lasted past midnight. Five years from now, our eldest will likely be home on college break and both daughters will probably be more interested in doing something with friends than with us on New Years Eve. Things are supposed to change like this. A growing, changing family is far better than the alternative. But grief is part of the changing too.
As I look around at my unadorned house and the weeks of regular old days to come, it is tempting to commit to paying more attention, being more present, so that it’s not only at times of special celebration that I’m especially aware of how things are changing and grateful for how things are. But I’ve learned not to make these kinds of commitments. I have always striven to pay attention, particularly to my children, and think I do a pretty good job of it. But I’ve learned that despite our best efforts, regular days blur, one into another. I remember looking at my children as toddlers, at their chubby feet and soft cheeks, listening to their high-pitched voices, and telling myself: Remember! Remember how they look and sound, remember those funny words they use for everyday objects. But I remember little. On the rare occasion that we watch a video of one of our toddlers, I am in disbelief that they ever looked and moved and sounded like that. I don’t remember most of the funny words and expressions. (I do still refer to any Christmas lights we see as we drive around town in December as “lee loo lights,” because that’s what Ben called them when he was not quite two years old. I remember that not because I paid extra attention when Ben was two, but because the word quickly became a habit for me, and I’ve been using it now for eight Decembers.) I was struck by Sara Koenig’s opening episode of the hit NPR podcast, “Serial,” in which she reminded us—and then showed us, by asking several people about their activities the previous Friday—how very hard it is to remember details of our ordinary days, even when asked to recall them only a few days later.
I don’t think there is a corrective to this blurry recall of our regular days, or to the melancholy that sets in when the end of a holiday week forces a stark assessment of just how much things have changed. But my post-holiday melancholy does reinforce the importance of making room in our daily lives for rituals and traditions that help us mark time and pay a different sort of attention. For example, I need weekly church attendance and regular family dinners for the same reason I need our holiday traditions. Family dinners, Sunday services, and holiday celebrations all feature special objects that signal the setting aside of a special time for certain purpose—cloth napkins laid out, a musical prelude beginning, Advent candles lit one by one. They come with expectations for particular behaviors—ask to be excused, hold your hands out if you want to receive communion, take turns opening the gifts under the tree. They invite us to step out of our daily routines long enough to connect and sometimes reflect with others on what we desire, hope, and believe. They offer sustenance of many kinds—food, prayer, fellowship, remembrance.
The decorations are packed away for another year, and despite my melancholy day of taking them down, I’m mostly glad about that. The house feels cleaner and fresher. I’m eager to get back to some work projects. And boy, am I happy to have the house back to myself for the hours my kids are in school. I realize it’s not Christmas that I wanted to hang on to, but the way that holiday rituals foster connection, attention, and reflection. I look forward to the other rituals we practice that serve as little celebrations throughout the year, markers that give shape and meaning to all those regular days.