About the author: Charlie Warzel is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of Galaxy Brain, a newsletter about the internet and big ideas.
Right now, there is a hole in my living room. It was not there last week. We've tried to cover it up, but nothing seems to work. Rearranging the furniture somehow only makes the hole grow. The space, which once radiated a hopeful glow, now feels hollow. When I stare at this hole, I begin to feel as if a light has gone out in the world. Actually, not just one, many. And that's because they have.
I am, of course, talking about my Christmas tree (RIP).
If you live in one of the 94 million homes or apartments that purchased or displayed a tree this holiday season, then maybe you feel the same melancholy that I do now. It's grim out there. Two weeks ago, my street was a Griswoldian wonderland with twinkling lights silhouetting the eaves of my neighbors' houses and robust looking conifers standing proudly in their windows. Now my street is an evergreen graveyard with damp, sickly looking pines discarded by the side of the road, half buried in the driven slush.
Read: Have yourself a million little Christmases
It is a bleak scene, made all the worse by the fact that it is unnecessary. The decision to take down our holiday decorations after New Year's is an arbitrary act of seasonal austerity. Yes, the holidays are over, but the cold, dark days of winter are far from done. And so I propose we put an end to this cruel practice. There is no reason to embrace the new year in darkness. It is time we institute a new practice of keeping up our trees and our lights while we ride out the winter months. Normalize prolonged festivity!
Listen, I'm not some sort of holiday weirdo. I don't play Christmas music in July or have giant inflatable Santas strewn across my lawn. I'm not looking to strain my county's power grid with an excessive use of kilowatt-hours. I'm not really religious, and the excessive commercialization of the holiday season stresses me out. But this isn't about Christmas or Hanukkah or any specific celebration. It's about finding ways to make it through the winter doldrums.
Right now, that's more challenging than ever. The holiday comedown was hard enough before COVID stresses, variant surges, and school closures. And while plenty of people out there are embracing normalcy, millions more with lower risk tolerance are hunkering down to protect themselves or loved ones or to keep the hospital system from straining. It is, for many, a lonely time.
"It's been such a difficult few years for everyone," Jami Warner, the executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, told me. She said that the Christmas-tree industry has seen a substantial uptick in sales during the pandemic years, even despite supply-chain challenges. Warner also assured me that I was not alone and that people are leaving their artificial trees up longer and longer -- sometimes year-round. "We so desperately need that light in our lives these days," she said. "And people are realizing that having them around is a wonderful, uplifting thing." (Warner also stressed that year-round trees must be artificial and that keeping a natural, cut tree for more than a month poses serious fire danger, even if you constantly water your tree.)
Artificial trees have become hugely popular in recent years. There's also a growing market of tree shoppers, Warner said, who are buying expensive minimalist trees and displaying them like modern art. Others are buying trees that can change with the seasons, and Valentine's Day and Halloween trees are sprouting up online. According to Warner, the second-most-popular tree sold by the artificial-tree manufacturer Treetopia is a bold conical creation that is bright orange, like the sun. "People are nuts for them," she told me.
I started snooping around online for more evidence of like-minded Tree Keepers, and I soon found that we are legion. Our ranks even include celebrities, such as the legendary singer-songwriter John Prine, who kept a Christmas tree up all year in his studio ("We'd turn all the lights off and just sing to the Christmas tree," he told GQ in 2018). Some have succumbed to social pressure and are mourning the loss of their sapling friends. Some are coping in their own way, by buying potted Christmas trees -- an eco-friendly, nonseasonal alternative. Others have taken a unique approach: "We grew a bigass rosemary plant and put lights on it for this reason," one Tree Keeper told me on Twitter. Just as Warner had mentioned, I found hundreds of accounts of people who had switched to an artificial tree to extend the cozy vibes. Come January 1, the Christmas ornaments come down, but the lights and the golden glow remain.
Photos: Delighting in holiday light shows
My favorite story, though, comes from a woman named Allison, who emailed me about her Tree Keeping adventure this winter. Like so many people this year, Allison's family was missing a loved one and staring down a difficult holiday season. Thanks to some helpful neighbors with an ATV and a bit of luck, she found the perfect tree at her fire department's annual tree sale: a towering and rotund fir. The family named it Edna.
"It was the best tree we'd ever had," Allison told me. "The fireman thought no one wanted it because it was plump. It smelled magnificent, and seemed impervious to dryness.
The tree, she said, has become like family over the past month. "Christmas was a little messy for us this year," she said. "It felt truncated and small, so the tree loomed large, standing for what was right and good." Her pet rabbit ate most of its lower branches.
Like Allison, I believe that the most important part of the holiday season has little to do with any one day or gift. It's about a change in spirit -- one that urges us to take a moment to reflect during a dark and cold stretch of the year, and adds little dashes of color and light to our lives. It's a time of year that reminds us to be hopeful and to focus on joy where we can find it. I'm not sure why that attitude needs to die on January 1.
I'm not suggesting that we need to leave our trees up all year. (Though Warner and the Christmas Tree Association told me that the perma-tree movement is picking up steam.) Tree timing should be as arbitrary as it is individualized -- especially during a pandemic winter. Time is a flat circle. Take your tree down when you're ready. Or don't! Apologize for nothing.
When the time came last week for Allison to take down her tree, she and her family felt a tremendous and surprising sense of loss. "When the tree comes down, so does the season, and there's just a stretch of cold January ahead," Allison told me. "The friend who you invited in now has to go, and you realize you want her to stay and be a part of the family. Indecorously chucking her outside and leaving her to the elements, or worse, to garbage pickup, is too cruel a thought."
So Allison decided to do things differently this year. She still took her tree down, but she also put it back up again. For now, Edna's on the back patio, where the family can keep an eye on her. And that's where she'll stay for as long as they need her.