Why A Family Tradition Had To End…And The Life Lesson It Taught

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January 13, 2015

After the holidays, discarded Christmas trees appear on the streets of my neighborhood. They’re left curbside, awaiting the special trash pickup. Seeing them, denuded and shorn of their holiday ornaments, I always feel a bit pensive, along with a tinge of humor, as I recall a Christmas tree tradition my then-young children and I had years ago. Each year we’d gather together for a special ritual we had created around putting up, and eventually taking down the Christmas tree.

It had begun when we were still an intact family. And it continued for some years, post-divorce, until, that is, a time came when their flagging interest got my attention. It happened one post-holiday year when I realized that I’d have to do the dismantling part by myself. But instead, I let it just sit there for a very long time, even as the dry tree kept shedding its needles and became, well…a fire hazard.

The back-story: Beginning in my children’s earliest years, and on through my divorce and years as a single parent, we’d have a tree-decorating party at Christmastime. After positioning the tree in its stand — and cursing a bit when it kept wanting to tilt over — I’d retrieve the large carton that stored all the ornaments and whatever lights that still worked from the previous year.

To initiate our decorating party, we would bring out some homemade cookies for the kids and some good Bordeaux for me. Then, as part of the tradition, I retrieved my old, original copy of Elvis’ Christmas album. Though now in delicate condition, the LP’s sound remained clear and vibrant on my pre-CD stereo system. I don’t recall how that part of the tradition began, but my children liked Elvis’ version of classic songs, like “Here Comes Santa Claus.” They also enjoyed his adult-oriented rock numbers, like “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” completely unaware of the adult innuendos.

While Elvis sang, we took turns choosing which ornaments to hang on which tree’s branches. The little wire clips with loops made it easier for small hands to hang the decorations. Some were some hand-made, given by my older sister each year, upon which she had embroidered with my children’s names. Then, up went a few very old, fragile ornaments handed down from my mother. Probably of 1940s or ’50s vintage, some were very thin, translucent bells; others, round colored balls so delicate they risked crumbling if you held them too tightly. A finishing touch was adding some peppermint candy canes to the branches (which the children delighted in snatching when they thought I wasn’t looking). They kids would argue a bit about who would be first to start stringing up the lights. And finally, we’d top the tree with a Star of David — a nod to their mother’s heritage.

Of course, throughout the holiday period we’d have to remember to keep the family dog from trying to lap up the water in the tree stand. It never worked. He seemed convinced it was his special water dish. Then, sometime after New Year’s, we would reconvene to take the tree down. The presents had been cleared away by then, leaving the tree looking a bit naked and abandoned. With Elvis again providing background music, we carefully removed the decorations and put them back into their resting place for another year. Finally, I would haul the tree out to the street for the trash pickup.

Those two rituals were like bookends to the holiday season. And the second one was always a little bittersweet, as it marked the end of school vacations and the holiday season. On the other had, it meant transitioning into a brand new year, one of new adventures and experiences. Both an ending and a beginning at the same time.

And so our tradition continued for several years. I wanted it to continue forever, but over time, the children’s interest started fading. I found that hard to acknowledge, though I knew it was inevitable. In fact, change and transition had been steadily underway in our lives all along. For one thing, as the children grew older they moved away from their childhood interests and toys as they approached and then entered their teen years.

And we had become a post-divorce family. Splitting holidays and vacations had become part of a new family “tradition,” and my children had become less enamored of our old one. I began to hear things like, “Oh, God — Dad’s about to play his Elvis album again!” Or, “Just start without me — I’ll be there in a minute; this movie I’m watching is almost over!”

It became an increasing challenge, in particular, to coordinate schedules for doing the tree-taking-down-thing. Finding a day or time when they wouldn’t be out with friends or otherwise enjoying themselves before heading back to school or off to college, became a tough logistical problem. But no surprise, there: The problem was me, trying to preserve our old tradition in the face of my children’s steadily declining enjoyment of it. I tried, but never could find the right magic to keep it frozen in place, forever.

Finally, on one post-holiday year, it became apparent that I would have to dismantle the tree by myself, symbolizing the end of an era. As one of my kids might have said back then, “Earth to Dad — Hello!”

It was the year when my youngest — the only one still in high school and at home after New Year’s — was already absorbed in the new semester. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear him say, “Hey, Dad, how about you dismantle the tree and then I’ll carry it outside for you when it’s ready?”

By then, the tree was rapidly shedding its needles, and they were getting tracked all over the house. True, I hadn’t given it any water for several weeks, either. So I just let the tree sit there for a long time, decked out in its Christmas array like someone still dressed for a party long since ended. By then, it was February. Late February, actually. And yes, I was fully aware that the tree had become a powder keg, which triggered a memory from my own youth. It was a horror story about an odd family that lived a mile or so away from where I grew up. We lived in a rural area in gradual transition into suburbia, east of Albany and across the Hudson River, toward the Massachusetts border. The story I recalled hearing was that the family still had their tree up well past Easter. One day someone’s cigarette apparently set it on fire. It went up like a torch and the house burned to the ground in a matter of minutes, killing everyone inside.

I was quite young at the time and never did learn if it was a true story or was dished up to serve as a lesson of some kind. Or my father might have made it up or embellished it; not untypical of his dark humor. But what I did know for sure was that a hermit supposedly lived in a cabin off the highway. It was visible from where I lived, if you looked across the fields after the trees had lost their leaves. His cabin burned to the ground one dark winter night. I recall seeing the flames shooting up in the distance with my own eyes.

In any case, such thoughts made me decide it was time to deal with the tree. And more to the point, accept the reality that life is constantly changing from something to something else; that nothing remains permanent or frozen, ever. This was my own small example of that.

So one weekend I dismantled the tree myself. I quickly removed the lights and ornaments and packed them away. I dragged the old tree – with its dry needles flying through the air, into my face, onto my coat – out the front door and onto the street.

In truth, I had waited until late at night to do that. I wanted to avoid any neighbors asking why I was tossing this dead tree to the curb two months after the city’s collection period.

The Christmas tree episode taught me a life lesson that never ends, really. We all have experiences and moments that we want to stay forever permanent and unchanged. But it’s not possible. No matter if it’s a special moment with others; an experience that makes you feel truly alive; a relationship that you want to stay just as it is. All are transitory and impermanent; in constant flow. If you fight that reality, you can only feel loss. But that doesn’t have to be. It all depends on how you deal with the experience change, and if you look at what you do with it, now. If you can embrace the impermanence of your cherished experiences, you can also see what may open up for you in the present; and as life continues forward.

For me, it became a bit easier over time to accept what my children did or didn’t enjoy participating in as they grew older, and they began their own adult lives. It helped temper feelings of loss as I saw that I could try to look for new possibilities, new experiences with them. Speaking of which: In the back of my mind is the idea of an annual Quebecois-themed holiday party, replete with French-Canadian desserts made from recipes that were, supposedly, passed down from previous generations. Perhaps my now-grown children and, eventually, their own families, might enjoy participating. But that’s a work in progress.


A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today.