From the train window as dusk faded it seemed that every house had a tree illuminated with coloured lights. Passing through snow-covered countryside the trees were often living in gardens or potted beside drives. As we sped through suburbia, more of them were framed in curtainless windows, and as the train slowed into city stations sometimes the trees gave way to spray-snowed apartment decorations, but the lights shone out all the way, from leaving Prague, through newly reunified Germany, and into Belgium.
It was a few days after joyously seeing in the New Year of 1991 in Wenceslas Square, just over a year after the Velvet Revolution, yet I vividly remember all those Christmas trees shining out as 12th Night approached. No one had thought of taking them down as New Year approached. No one had thought to unplug the lights, and take down the angels before Epiphany.
Now, Epiphany can be the answer to a quiz question, and, however worded, many won’t know the answer. I don’t know if those trees across the Europe we are in danger of fragmenting still blaze in the second of January and on up to the sixth, but ours was taken down today.
Listening to the wistful ‘Taking Down the Tree’ by Low, we removed the baubles and wound up the lights; I unscrewed the clamp at the tree’s base and took it, shedding needles as branches sprang against door jambs, out to the garden.
The season has shifted. The forty day Christmastide ending at Candlemas shrunk to the twelve days to Epiphany, then expanded and slid backwards, obliterating Advent, then guttering out like wind-blown candles on a votive stand: some abruptly as Boxing Day turns, some before New Year, yet more as thoughts turn back to school and work and a Bank Holiday provides the time for hoovering needles and passing boxes up the loft ladder, while only an eccentric few hold out their light until we remember (or more likely, for most of us, don’t) the guiding star.
I’m not really sure what I make of this. Nor, to be frank, does the church, shunting Epiphany around to fit the pattern of days of the week against dates, and cutting Candlemas off from Christmas with a strand of ‘ordinary time’. But none of this matters to most of us. When it’s over it’s over. And it’s over in a day.
Our traditions evolve, or devolve, and if that means picking up the tree as November slides into December, then staring into the blankness where only this morning it still put up its little arms, while (their ways deep and the weather sharp), a cold going so many have of it, then it is (you might say) unsatisfactory.
But this putting away can perhaps also be transfigured. We dismantle the old year and make room for the new. I will cut up the tree for kindling and it will blaze sometime in this new year. Warmth will come, somehow, into a world that seems cold, and perhaps our empty space will make room for the stranger.