For Pat McGhee, of Arlington, the ceremonial dismantling of the Christmas tree generally amounts to this: "My girlfriend takes the lights off and I drag it out."

After all the glitter, gusto and gaiety of Christmas, Washington area residents last week began dragging out, packing up and throwing away weeks, even months and years of preparation for the most festive of holiday seasons.

Claude Brancart, for example, helped box his wife's collection of about 100 Santa Clauses Friday night.

"They were all over the house," said Brancart, of Old Town Alexandria. "There must be 100 of them, from 2 feet tall to 1 inch tall."

For many, the holiday season ends when they finally dispose of their weeks-old trees. To some, the finale was New Year's Day. To others, the holiday continues until today -- Epiphany, also called the Twelfth Day or the Feast of Lights -- and the tree must stay up until then.

Then there are those like Janie Hinds, who get rid of the evergreen when it starts to turn brown.

"It's old and drops its needles everywhere. I see the day has come and that's it," said Hinds, of Alexandria. But a little part of Christmas always lingers. "You have those needles until July."

Yesterday, Hinds and dozens of other area residents brought their trees, hanging off the backs and tops of cars, to the Hechinger store in Baileys Crossroads, where they were tossed into giant blue dumpsters and taken to Fairfax County recycling centers for grinding into mulch, an increasingly popular disposal method.

McGhee, who brought his tree already chopped and stuffed into two little plastic bags, said he took down his tree on New Year's Day while watching football games.

"We came back from vacation and it was real dry," McGhee said. "We decided if we put the lights on, it would catch fire."

Watching football and taking down trees is not just popular with McGhee.

"You stand around and watch football games as you take it down," said Dana Gillis, of Falls Church. He said it usually takes five to six hours to dismantle the tree "between plays."

"We usually just wait until New Year's Day," Gillis said. "It's been like that ever since I've been a little kid. All the needles could fall off and it would still stay up until New Year's Day."

Gillis kept the tree in the garage of his condominium from Tuesday until yesterday, when he brought it to be recycled.

Hechinger Co. officials, who decided to recycle trees into mulch at some of their stores, were divided over the best day to end Christmas.

"We had a big debate within the company about when do people take their trees down," said Jim Gaines, a Hechinger district manager. "We just decided this weekend would be the big weekend."

"I started asking people, 'When do you take your tree down,' and people said the middle of January or the end of January," Gaines said.

For many households, putting up the tree is a family affair with egg nog or cider and Christmas carols.

"We always spend Christmas together," Brancart said, although his son and daughter are in their thirties. Decorating the tree "is sort of a ritual affair."

But there are few rituals or crowds when the tree comes down.

"We were ready to move on," McGhee said. "Enough of this Christmas spirit. Bah, humbug."

CHRISTMAS TREE RECYCLING

Area municipalities are helping residents help the environment by collecting discarded Christmas trees and chopping them into mulch for landscaping. The following is a general list of county and city programs. Some municipalities or private haulers provide additional curbside collection.

DISTRICT

Citywide: Trees will be collected with regularly scheduled Supercan yard-waste collection and at all twice-weekly collection points on Wednesday and on Jan. 16 and 30. For information call 202-727-5856.

MARYLAND

Anne Arundel: Drop-off sites include the Glen Burnie Transfer Station and the Millersville and Sudley landfills. Residents who drop off trees today will receive a coupon for a free seedling. Call 301-222-6103.

Howard: There are seven drop-off locations for Christmas trees, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. only, next Saturday and Sunday. Call 301-313-2388.

Montgomery: Residents in the lower county trash collection district can bring trees to any active elementary school through next Sunday. Call 301-565-7588. All other residents in single-family homes or town houses will receive curbside pickup on the regular weekly recycling day. Call 301-217-2415. Residents in incorporated areas should contact their local jurisdiction for information.

Prince George's: Trees will be accepted at the Brown Station Road landfill in Upper Marlboro, 301-627-7465; and at the Sandy Hill facility, 301-925-5963.

VIRGINIA

Alexandria: Trees will be collected with regular trash pickup and burned to generate energy.

Arlington: Residents can take trees to the Homeowners Refuse Transfer Center at 500 31st St. South. Trees also will be picked up by request on the regular trash day. Call 703-358-6570.

Fairfax: Residents can take trees to any of the county's 10 Hechinger locations during store hours today and next weekend only. The I-66 Transfer Station at 4618 W. Ox Rd., 703-631-1179, and the I-95 landfill at 9850 Furnace Rd. in Lorton, 703-690-1703, will accept trees daily. A separate brush and Christmas tree pickup service will be provided for residents with county collection service. To request pickup for recycling, call 703-550-3481.

Loudoun: The Hechinger store in Sterling Park will collect trees during store hours today and next weekend only. The county landfill will accept trees Mondays through Saturdays. Trees also can be dropped off, next Saturday only, at five county schools. For information call 703-771-5318.

Prince William: Drop off trees at Woodbridge and Manassas Hechinger locations during store hours today and next weekend only. Trees also will be collected daily at the county landfill at 14811 Dumfries Rd., Independent Hill, 703-791-3660.