Must it end like this? Me and my super wrestling my Christmas tree, my beautiful Christmas tree, into a large plastic condom, ready for disposal? “It won’t fit,” he says, as the lower branches struggle free of their imminent tomb. We tussle and jiggle, until the game is up and the tree has become its own weird death parcel.
Defiantly, its crowning branch pierces the top. If it must go, it is going with its head held high. It will go, as it arrived here in my apartment, rustling. And it still smells gloriously of pine. We have had fun the last three weeks, the tree and I. What a colorful pal to come home to every night: my very own sweet-smelling daily riot of Liberace fabulousness, right there next to the window.
Strictly speaking—and I am very traditional, at least about these things—the tree should have stayed up till Twelfth Night. But come Twelfth Night, I will be working, the super will have knocked off for the day, and the tree will have truly outstayed its welcome—which means, as any traditionalist knows, bad luck.
Hence, the tree must leave a few days early. Or there will be bad luck…or even more bad luck. This year, Christmas and New Year has felt more like a strange and ominous stepping stone to who knows what comes next? Everyone seems nervous, whatever their views.
The joy and pleasure of this time of year came with its own eccentric and foreboding tick-tock in 2016. Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and George Michael died, the queen is sick, Donald Trump tweeted a spectacularly graceless New Year’s message, and Mariah Carey performed by humiliating accident the best New Year’s Eve performance ever at Times Square—there was no making nice as her backing track or whatever it was malfunctioned. She was pissed off, sarcastic, her own kind of trouper—an unintentionally brilliant New Year’s example to set to us all.
So today, Jan. 3, feels right to undecorate the tree and put away Christmas for another year. If you are feeling that dull thud of the end of fun, if you’re feeling a little droopy today—or a lot droopy—don’t worry. You’re not alone. Everyday life is not Christmas life. The first day back at work and school is like chewing granite after weeks of munching marzipan.
It’s a strange few weeks around Christmas and New Year, when our 9 to 5 stops being 9 to 5. Even if you are working, it feels like you are working slightly differently. And on your way to work and then coming back from work, there are lights and—in New York—the Christmas tree sellers on the corner, and giddiness—the best thing about a city. There is the rushing about, and friends, and friends who may only be friends for the holiday. You spend time with all kinds of compadres, you drink eggnog like it’s mother’s milk. Everything feels a little sillier. There are treats and presents. And religion if you so wish, not just for the religious but even those who are not, who find themselves in church over Christmas lustily singing carols and tearfully contemplating Nativity scenes.
Of course, you can Scrooge the whole thing out. You can bah-humbug among the giggling, shopping, partying hordes. But even if you aren’t with family and if your friends have left town, even if you are alone, Christmas can still be a pleasure, because you can make your own fun either alone or with carefully chosen company. This isn’t to say Christmas can’t be the loneliest time of year for many—especially those who are heartbroken or grieving, especially freshly—but even then, either by yourself or with the support of others, there can be something warming about this time of year. There are memories, always memories. They come unbidden, or ridiculously bidden—especially care of Frank Sinatra, the Carpenters, or Wham!
You can spend those odd days of no-work at the cinema, or going for walks, or cooking, or having delicious meals out, or reading. Reading: the best thing that we suddenly have time for at the holidays. Lying on the couch with a novel, snoozing off, and waking up with a novel on your chest: There is nothing better than this.
The tree, and home decoration, is the true test of one’s Christmas spirit. If you live with someone, or if you have family, you have a home to decorate for. But living alone, buying a tree, and putting up lights is an extra-delicious statement about the grace and meaning of living alone.
Tree-buying, in my blurred memory, took place much nearer Christmas than it does now. And so, despite all of New York seemingly buying theirs at Thanksgiving or just after, I held true to Dec. 18 or thereabouts. This year, that became Dec. 11, and like my fellow tree-fans, I carried mine home with all the pride and relish of a butch hunter-gatherer, albeit of a very urban variety.
And then out come the ornaments and lights. And an angel, or fairy as we used to call it in Britain. Mine is a postcard of the trailblazing Harvey Milk, here at it his most voluble and rabble-rousing. He really is an angel and the best kind of fairy for all of us.
Like many of you who had a tree, I’m sure, I actively looked forward to coming home and turning on my colored lights. I fell asleep with them lit, I woke with them lit.
A Christmas tree is about coziness. Off goes every other light in your home, and on the tree lights stay. And like cold ham, or the seasonal extravagance of having something ridiculous with cheese and mayonnaise and a mimosa in the mornings, or chocolate on an endless conveyor belt, so there is something special about those lights being on during the day. An insistence on romance and magic.
On the streets there are more lights, more buzz. There is also the ferocious and grotesque commercial sound and fury (and I’m with Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic on that particular matter), and our heightened expectations. What do we expect may happen at this crazy time of year? Who knows, but Christmas and New Year seem to herald transformation.
There is that odd bridging week between Christmas and New Year. Nobody has figured out what to do with that, but there is definitely a moment where—even if you don’t do resolutions, or believe this arbitrary line in the temporal sand—one’s mind springs backward over a year just gone and forward over the year to come.
And this year, that feels different, however you feel about Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rest. Whatever reckoning there is to come feels personal. How will that be for all of us?
We make resolutions to be better and do better—and so the preceding weeks of extravagance and ignoring timetables and rules become straightened into order, and another kind of transformation and self-improvement of body and mind takes hold.
Many carbs become fewer carbs, and questions rattle around. What have you done wrong, what have you done right, could you do better, how could you do better? Have you helped others? How can you help others? Where do you belong? How better could you belong? What is our place? (For all of this, Captain Fantastic—not Collateral Beauty—was my Christmas film, despite it being out for months and not really about Christmas.)
And so the lights had to come down today, and so did the tree. The clock has snapped forward, maybe for all of us, earlier than normal. The baubles are safely back in their box—none damaged this year, which is a bit of a success. The tree needles have been swept up, the surfaces will soon be cleaned.
The lights have been untangled and put away. Where once in the corner of the room, in all its twinkly glory, was my Christmas tree, now there’s just a gap. The usual gap. The everyday gap. The same-old same-old gap of the day-to-day. It’ll be tax return time soon. Joy!
Christmas is over, but something tells me in about 48 weeks’ time we will be thirsting for it like never before.