Taking Down the Christmas Tree... With Elvis and My Kids

From my children's earliest years, on through my divorce and years as a single parent, we would gather together for a small party to decorate the tree. We'd join again to take it down on New Year's Day, sort of like bookends to the holiday season; a transition into the new calendar year.
01/07/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013
NEW YORK - JANUARY 2:  A discarded Christmas tree sits on First Avenue in the East Village January 2, 2003 in New York City.
NEW YORK - JANUARY 2: A discarded Christmas tree sits on First Avenue in the East Village January 2, 2003 in New York City. A recycling program dubbed Mulchfest 2003 encourages New Yorkers to bring their holiday trees to designated sites to be converted into wood chips to be used for mulch. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As I walked through the lobby of my office building the other day following some time off during the holidays, I noticed that the Christmas tree, the assorted little snowmen, the lights and other decorations were still up. I had a flashback to the time, many years ago, when my young children and I would gather together to put up -- and then take down -- the Christmas tree. It had become our little tradition. Until, that is, when it was no longer; when I had to dismantle it myself but just let it sit there, untouched. For a long time.

Here's what happened: From my children's earliest years, on through my divorce and years as a single parent, we would gather together for a small party to decorate the tree. We'd join again to take it down on New Year's Day, sort of like bookends to the holiday season; a transition into the new calendar year. We accompanied both events with playing songs from my old Elvis' Christmas album, some treats for my kids and a big glass of wine for me. But over the years, my children grew and their interest faded. And it was hard for me to recognize and accept that.

I may sound like a sentimental, aging midlife father, but I still smile to myself recalling how enjoyable our tradition was for us for many years. It went like this: A couple of weeks before Christmas, after we set the tree up in its stand, we would retrieve the large shipping carton that contained the ornaments and lights from the previous year. But before doing anything, we would bring out some homemade cookies for the children and some good Bordeaux for me. And then, to initiate our decorating party, I would begin playing Elvis' old Christmas album -- an original copy, which I had bought as a teenager.

Though now in delicate condition, the old LP's sound remained clear and vibrant on the stereo. My kids liked Elvis' version of classic songs, like "Here Comes Santa Claus," but also enjoyed his more adult rock numbers, like "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me" or "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," my own favorites.

As Elvis sang, we began taking turns picking out ornaments to attach to those little wire clips for hanging on the tree's branches. Some had little loops built into them, which made it easier for small hands. Next were some hand-made decorations my older sister sent us each year, embroidered with my children's names. Finally, up went a few very old, fragile ornaments bestowed by my mother, probably of 1940s or '50s vintage. Some were thin, almost translucent bells; others, round colored balls so delicate they might crumble if you held them too tightly. The kids would argue about who would string up the lights first, of course. And then we'd top the tree with a Star of David -- a nod to their mother's heritage.

So that was the scene for many years: Elvis singing in the background, a large glass of red wine for me and cookies for them (along with the occasional peppermint candy cane they snatched from one of the tree's branches when they thought I wasn't looking). Oh, and we'd have to keep shooing the dog away from lapping up the water in the tree stand. He seemed convinced it was his special water dish.

On New Year's Day, we reconvened to take the tree down. The presents had been cleared away from beneath the tree by then, leaving it looking a bit naked and abandoned. It was a bittersweet marking of the end of school vacations and the holiday season. But, I liked making it into a transition, as well; to a brand new year ahead, one of new adventures and experiences. An ending and a beginning at the same time.

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 carry the tree outside and dump it where the city would pick it up.

The years passed. I see now that I wanted our little tradition to continue forever. In fact, change and transition had been steadily underway in our lives, all along. We were a family of divorce. The kids were getting older, moving from childhood interests and toys towards pre-teen awareness and then into adolescent awakening. Splitting holidays and vacations had become part of a new "tradition." Along the way, my children had become less enamored of our old one, especially when it came time to take down the tree.

"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's almost over."

It became an increasing challenge just to coordinate their schedules for doing the tree-taking-down thing. It was difficult 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. In truth, I was trying to hold onto the old experience whose enjoyment to them had been declining along the way. I wanted it frozen in place, forever.

Of course, reality has a way of slapping you in the face, a bit harder each time until you take notice. As my kids would have said back then, "Earth to Dad -- Hello!" On one year, it became apparent that I was going to have to dismantle the tree by myself. My youngest -- the only one still in high school and still at home after New Year -- 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, it was shedding needles in droves, which were making their way throughout the house. Accelerated, no doubt, by my having not given it any water for several weeks.

I procrastinated. I just let the tree just sit there, decked out in its Christmas array, looking like someone still dressed for a party long since ended. What I'm saying is that I really let it sit there. Until February. OK, late February. And yes, it was a total powder keg at that point.

At that moment, I recalled from my own youth the story of a strange, reclusive family who lived a few miles from us. They still had their tree up well past Easter. One day, a family member's cigarette apparently set it on fire and it went up like a torch. The house burned to the ground in a matter of minutes.

Perhaps my memory of that house going up in flames reminded me that life is constantly changing from something to something else, and that I needed to accept this small illustration in my life. So, one weekend afternoon I took down the tree myself, sans kids, sans Elvis. I quickly removed the lights and ornaments, packed them away, and then dragged the thing -- needles flying through the air, into my face, onto my coat; I didn't care at that point -- out the front door and onto the street.

Actually, I had waited until the dead of night. I didn't want to deal with any neighbors asking why I was pulling this needle-shedding dead tree through the front door and out into the street two months after the city had finished collecting them.

The lesson for me -- llifelong, needless to say -- was that anything you hope to keep permanent and hold onto forever -- a special moment of time, an experience that makes you feel truly alive, a relationship that you don't want to ever change -- you can't. Trying to do so is illusory, because everything changes; all is transitory. But that's not always or only "negative." It depends how we experience it; what we do with it.

From that point forward, it became a bit easier to accept what my children did or didn't enjoy participating in with me as they grew older. And I began to realize that there are always new possibilities. For example, my intention to have a Quebecois-themed holiday party someday, replete with French-Canadian deserts made from handed-down recipes from my father's forebears. And, perhaps...my now grown-up children will enjoy being there.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.