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If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, as the song claims, the time following Christmas and New Year’s must be the most dreary.

The days are short and cold (in New Jersey, anyway), and any anticipation of upcoming holiday gifts and celebrations is gone.

Then there’s the Christmas tree, still gaudy and lit for a party that ended last week; a houseguest past its prime.

How long do you leave it up? The traditional date in many Catholic households is January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. But the unofficial date in our house is when the tree starts to die. Once it stops taking up water, or we stop giving it water (it’s a chicken and egg thing), it really starts drying out. So when we see a circular green halo of fallen needles on the floor, it’s time to kick the tree to the curb.

As if blindfolding a hostage, a lot of people put a jumbo white plastic bag over their tree before they drag it out for the garbageman. But what does that accomplish? The tree doesn’t need protection from the elements, and the trash collectors know it’s rubbish whether you bag it or not – it’s just a dead evergreen.

Is the big white bag just a way to avoid extra cleanup, by preventing the tree from dropping dried needles everywhere? I say put one less plastic bag into the world and sweep up after yourself. But hey, I also like the way the vacuum cleaner smells, even a month later, stuffed with those fragrant needles.

Whenever you take it down, and however you dispose of it, the tree disappears, and the ornaments and lights go back in their boxes. We squirrel them away in a corner of the basement, along with the Santa statuettes, metal greeting card holders shaped like reindeer, angels, holly sprigs, candles, and other festive paraphernalia that’s been strewn about our house for the past month.

Thankfully, the Christmas carols and pop songs that have been playing ad nauseum on every radio station, elevator speaker, and department store Muzak track since Black Friday stop dead after Christmas Day, not to be heard again until next November. But in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, the popular radio stations trot out and overplay a 1980 Dan Fogelberg song called “Same Old Lang Syne,” in which he describes a chance Christmas Eve encounter with an old sweetheart.

The song depresses the hell out of me, mainly because it’s snowing in the beginning of the song. But by the end, when the former lovers have reminisced until there’s nothing more to say and he’s walking home alone, the snow turns into rain. And following that lyric, the song trails off into a lonely saxopohone solo of “Auld Lang Syne.”

New Year’s Eve comes and you have a date or you don’t. You stay up until midnight or not, drink or abstain, and, with varying degrees of conviction, make resolutions that for the most part evaporate like hoarfrost on New Year’s morning.

By the time January 2 rolls around, I’m quietly glad it’s all over, even though this signals the start of months of bleak weather with no major holidays in sight.

But in the end, it’s all good. Whether you’re looking back at the old year with regret or fondness, or forward to the new with anything from trepidation to boundless joy, be grateful – you’re still looking.