In our household there has always been a bit of a disagreement as to when to take down our Yuletide decorations. My sister would just as soon that they came down on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in many English speaking countries). My brother and I prefer taking them down on New Year's Day, although we have waited until January 2. Of course, in all honesty I would just as soon leave them up until January 5.
In the 21st Century United States, just as there is a good deal of variation in when people put up their decorations, there is also a good deal of variation in when they take them down. Many will have taken their Christmas decorations today (in fact, our neighbours appear to have done so). Others, like us, will wait until January 1 to do so. Less common are those who take them down sometime between December 26 and January 1.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. As a child I remember our family always kept our Christmas decorations up until January 1. We never considered taking them down earlier. What is more, all of our neighbours were the same way. It seems to me in the late Sixties and in the Seventies, at least in mid-Missouri, it was unknown for people to take down their Christmas decorations prior to New Year's Day. In fact, I think some even kept them up until January 2. The custom of keeping one's decorations up until New Year's Day is even seen in movies. The bulk of the plot of Ocean's 11 (1960) takes place on New Year's Eve, yet the casinos in the movie still have their decorations up. In fact, Ocean's 11 was shot from January 26 to February 16 1960, so the filmmakers had to persuade the casinos to keep their Christmas decorations up longer than normal so that it would look like, well, New Year's Eve!
While taking down one's holiday decorations on January 1 seems to have been the norm forty to fifty years ago, there was a time people kept them up even longer. When the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed, decorations were often kept up until Twelfth Night (either January 5 or January 6, depending upon which church calendar one observed). It was considered unlucky to keep them up any longer. Even earlier, during the Elizabethan Era, Christmas decorations were kept up until Candlemas (February 2 or modern day Groundhog Day in the U.S.) and it was considered unlucky to keep them up after that.
Given at one time Christmas decorations were kept up much longer, the question is, "Why do so many take them down as early as December 26?" I have no idea how the date for taking down Christmas decorations shifted from Candlemas to Twelfth Night, but I think I know how the date for taking down decorations shifted from Twelfth Night to New Year's Day and now December 26 in the United States. Quite simply, the American holiday shopping season is to blame. As early as the 1900s the day after Thanksgiving (now known as Black Friday) was established as the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Quite naturally, stores insisted on promoting their holiday shopping sales with Christmas imagery. This is why the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (which was originally the Macy's Christmas Parade, even though it took place on Thanksgiving) always ends with the arrival of Santa Claus. As time wore on, people conflated the holiday season with the holiday shopping season. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas had already been losing ground in the United States in the 19th Century. The 20th Century Christmas shopping season nearly obliterated any observance of them.
With the Twelve Days of Christmas no longer observed, people began taking down their decorations on New Year's Day instead of Twelfth Night. In the late 20th Century this would be complicated by the phenomenon called "Christmas creep", whereby stores started putting out holiday wares and using holiday themed advertising at earlier and earlier dates. In the mid-20th Century one did not see any Christmas advertising until after Thanksgiving. By the 1990s it was often sometime in mid-November. By the Naughts it seemed as if November 1 was the day that Christmas advertising began. This being the case, many Americans may have started thinking of the holiday season as beginning on November 1 or at least sometime before Thanksgiving. The end result is that while people might put up their decorations on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, they take them down on December 26.
Traditionalist that I am, I find this sad. For me it is not a simple case that my parents never took down our decorations before January 1. It's a case that I have always thought the traditional Yuletide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, is superior to the "holiday shopping season". At least in the United States, the imagery of our secular Christmas season is linked to winter. When one thinks of Christmas, one thinks of snow and snowmen and wintry weather. Even Santa Claus is said to drive a sleigh. On November 1 it is still autumn across the northern hemisphere, including the United States, and snow is highly unlikely on that date except for a very few places in North America. Given the imagery of Christmas is all geared towards winter and the fact that traditionally it is a winter holiday (indeed, the winter holiday), it makes more sense to celebrate it from December 25 to January 5. It makes no sense to celebrate it from November 1 (before it is even Thanksgiving) to December 25. As to returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas, it would actually be advantageous for stores to do so. Think about it--instead of one big day for gift giving (December 25), they would have twelve whole days for which they could encourage people to buy gifts!
Regardless, we will be taking our Yuletide decorations down on New Year's Day as we always do. To me the holiday season is far from over and I really do not like to see decorations taken down any earlier. Of course, I do hope one day that I can talk my brother into agreeing to taking them down on January 5....