The tree unadorned. Photo by Kary Schumpert.

The holidays come careening like a noisy parade, despite their arrival in the midst of the quiet beginning of winter. For a bit, we forget about the silence, while decorating and baking and wrapping and celebrating. It is in the darkest time of the year, that we find the meaning of light and look forward to its arrival.

One of my favorite rituals is taking down the Christmas tree and all the decorations, at the end of the holiday season while the year is still young. Some people I know, as soon as the last present has been unwrapped, swiftly pack up all the ornaments and vacuum the last of the evergreen needles, fake or real, from the floor the day after Christmas. I like to wait until Epiphany or the 12th day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition, Epiphany is the day that the wise men finally reached the birthplace of Jesus. This year, to celebrate Epiphany, I waited for a windy morning in the new year, but not the actual day, which is January 6.

The word epiphany also means “a sudden revelation or insight.” In this case, an epiphany is the proverbial “light bulb moment” when one has a great idea or something becomes clear. Two huge epiphanies occurred to me in November. It’s weird how a moment of clarity can be the point in which everything changes, even if quietly and internally.

I like that Epiphany, also celebrated by taking down the tree and other decorations, is both a celebration of the “light of the world” and a time of removing those lights. Metaphors abound.

A couple of mornings after the new year dawned, I brewed a cup of coffee and shivered into my favorite sweatshirt with the moon’s phases printed on the front. I pulled the two plastic boxes from the closet and then began the undressing, the unadornment, of my apartment.

I unplugged the lights and took down the wreath from the back of the door in the kitchen. I removed the electric chile ristra lights, given to me last year by a good friend, from the wall by the stove. I remembered to pick up the small holy family creche near the entry way. I took the punched tin angel down from the top of the tree and returned it to the shelf for its year-round spot in my living room.

Then I began the routine of plucking the ornaments one-by-one off of the tree. The ornaments are really like specimens in a time capsule of my life. I possess ornaments given to me when I was born, and a felt stocking decoration I made in pre-school. There are souvenir ornaments from travels, including a wooden ornament of Nebraska I bought on a spring road trip to see the sandhill cranes. Each year, my mom gives us an ornament for our trees as a Christmas present and a celebration of the twelve months that have just passed.

This year, I added a pressed tin star ornament, as a memento from a summer trip to a colonial Spanish “living museum” near Santa Fe. My stepmother sent me a small ornament she had made with a picture of my dad at its center. He passed away in March and I appreciate her sweet handiwork and his familiar half smile-half smirk in the photo.

I wrapped the breakable ornaments in much-wrinkled tissue paper and placed the softer ornaments in old holiday cookie tins. I thought about the memories of Christmases past, my sisters and I wearing matching nightgowns as we unwrapped presents. I remembered playing with my cousins on Christmas eve in the warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen while the adults sat and talked around the tree in the living room. I recalled the year in college, when I almost didn’t make it home, stuck in the Duluth and Chicago airports due to a heavy, heavy fog and then a holiday’s helping of snow just as the clouds began to clear.

I thought about making Christmas cookies with my younger sister in our years as roommates in Colorado. I remembered the many holidays hosted by my older sister, the yummy food with the cacophony of family political debates and marathon trivia games. This year and last, I stayed home in Albuquerque and had quiet holidays.

This year brought sadness, with the passing of my dad. There was also a bit of upheaval, that had more to do with growth and some confrontation both with myself and with others. There has been sadness, grief, mistakes, arguments, deep discussions, joyful reunions, silent partings, and wonder. There has been much clearing away of the old:  old stories, old baggage, old untruths. There has been a planting of new seeds:  new truths, new friends, new relationships, new beginnings, and new beginnings within old relationships. There has been forgiveness:  of self, of others. There have been epiphanies.

The new year begins. We pack away the old. We begin in the quiet, sparse winter. We try new. We touch the scars, and we feel the healing. We forge ahead. We find the epiphanies. We want change. We know, though, that change must begin by learning from the past and trying something different. We have to clear away the old growth to make way for new growth. We know that sometimes our noisy proclamations are not the real changes, but instead, the genuine transformation takes place in the quiet moments when we reach out anew.


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