For years when the holidays approached, I started dreaming of the perfect Christmas. I was haunted by childhood memories, enticed by television commercials, inspired by classic movies and challenged by the covers of December magazines. In my memories and in the media, the perfect Christmas looked so easy, almost effortless. But after years of trying to provide a perfect Christmas for my own children I had to admit that perfection always eluded me. One way or another, the season never measured up. I accepted full responsibility for the failure and usually spent January slightly depressed, planning what I would do differently the next year.
So the Christmas after my daughter, Emily, was born in 1991, I determined that the year had finally arrived. This time I would do everything exactly right. Our Christmas would be perfect. Then on Christmas afternoon I would have the glow of satisfaction instead of the gloom of disappointment that I was becoming accustomed to.
So, I began my preparations early. I bought magazines, attended classes, made lists, scrimped, shopped and wrapped. I decorated, Christmas-crafted, baked and preserved. Several family members accepted our invitation to eat Christmas Dinner with us and the prospect of company pushed my efforts to new heights. I wallpapered my kitchen, painted the bathroom, shampooed the carpets and even cleaned behind the refrigerator.
I sent Christmas cards to everyone in my address book. I hung garland over the doors and put holly leaves on every flat surface. I put up two Christmas trees, taped paper snowflakes to the windows and hung angels from the ceiling fans.
We attended holiday parties and hosted one of our own. I made the kids sit on the lap of every Santa we saw and we watched all parades within reasonable driving distance. We spent hours cruising through strange neighborhoods, admiring their Christmas decorations. We went caroling and delivered homemade jelly to our neighbors.
The kids got out of school the week before Christmas and I scheduled activities for every waking moment. We made cookies and gingerbread houses. We strung popcorn and cranberries, played Christmas music 24 hours a day and wore only Christmas colors.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. Warmth seemed like an important element of the perfect Christmas, so when the sun set I started a blazing fire even though it was 70 degrees outside. I gathered the children, freshly bathed and dressed in coordinated Christmas pajamas, in front of the fireplace. We sang Christmas carols, just like the families on TV, waiting for Butch to come home. I knew he would be charmed to see this heart-warming sight when he came through the door. He got home right in the middle of Jingle Bells. He waited until we were between verses to comment: “It must be a hundred degrees in here. Somebody turn on the air conditioner.” Our fireside concert ended abruptly at that point and I went in to warm up his dinner while the children watched Christmas videos until bedtime.
After they were settled, I started pulling sacks and boxes from their various hiding places and divided them into appropriate stacks. Butch went upstairs to change clothes and never came back. I went up to check on him and found him lying on top of the covers, sound asleep. He worked long hours during Christmas so I knew he was tired, but I hated that he was going to miss the joy of Christmas Eve assembly. Hours later I had everything put together with a minimum of leftover screws. The gifts were stacked and arranged to their best advantage. Finally I could sit back and agonize over whether each child had really gotten what they wanted. Accepting that it was too late to change anything now, I went upstairs. I covered Butch with a quilt and collapsed beside him.
After what seemed like minutes, but was actually a luxurious two hours, my children started coming to wake me up. I sent them back to bed at 15-minute intervals until five o’clock when I surrendered. Butch and I staggered downstairs to watch the reactions to their gifts. Everyone seemed adequately ecstatic with their new possessions. The kids settled down to play and Butch stretched out on the couch. I went into the kitchen to prepare the perfect Christmas breakfast. I scrambled eggs, fried bacon, rolled out homemade biscuits and mixed up orange juice. By the time it was all ready, everyone had fallen back asleep. I curled up on the couch by Butch’s feet and surveyed the chaos. Sleeping children, scattered toys, scraps of paper, candy wrappers and an occasional pine needle covered the floor. This scene didn’t fit into anyone’s idea of a perfect Christmas.
I dozed off, but the phone rang about an hour later, waking everybody up. It was my brother saying that his entire family had a stomach virus and wouldn’t be able to come for dinner. Trying to overcome my disappointment, I re-heated breakfast. After we had eaten, the kids returned to their new toys while I cleaned up the kitchen and started on the perfect Christmas dinner. I peeled potatoes, stuffed turkey, dissolved Jell-O, kneaded roll dough and mixed cake batter. I could hear laughing from downstairs where the kids were playing. Butch was trying to put together a train track in the den.
I decorated the diningroom table to match the cover of a popular woman’s magazine and set out our best dishes. I had tried several new recipes and thought the food looked wonderful arranged around the table. I called for my family to get dressed and come to dinner. One by one they arrived. Their idea of dressing for dinner and mine were obviously different. I was wearing my Christmas dress, complete with hose and shoes. Most of my children were still wearing at least part of their pajamas. Butch had on cut-off sweat pants and a T-shirt that had (at least once) been used to polish his Sunday shoes.
Tears came to my eyes as I looked around the table at my family. Cathy watched me warily. She was 11 - old enough to realize that I was upset, but not sure why. I guess I hadn’t used the right kind of paint on her Christmas sweatshirt because it was already starting to peel. Laura (7) was wearing a purple windsuit my mother-in-law had given her for the fourth straight day. Jamie (6) was pointing out all the food items that he absolutely would not eat. Grace (4) was itemizing the gifts she had asked for but did not receive. Tommy (2) was hanging upside down over the side of his chair, examining a cobweb in the corner of the dining room. Emily was alternately banging her spoon on her highchair tray and rubbing cranberry sauce in her hair. Nothing was how I had meant for it to be. We were completely hopeless.
Butch started carving the turkey and mentioned that it was a little dry. The kids served their plates. Jamie hated everything. Tommy spilled his Christmas-red Kool-Aid on my new white tablecloth. I sat there in dazed despair, wondering where I went wrong. What Christmas event or activity could I possibly have missed? Didn’t I plan well enough? How could I have failed again?
It wasn’t until much later, after the decorations had been packed away and the trees discarded that I finally understood my mistake. In all the baking, wrapping, bow-tying, gift-giving and song-singing I had somehow managed to exclude the Savior and his birth completely from our Christmas. We went through all the preparations and then left our honored guest standing outside our door. Nativity scenes had become just decorations, like stockings and the trees. We gave gifts, but didn’t associate them with the wise men. The scriptures had collected dust during the holidays since we had been too busy to read them. Our family prayers had been sporadic and repetitious as we rushed from one holiday event to the next. We sang Away in a Manger along with Frosty the Snowman until we couldn’t tell the difference.
Since then I have come to accept that there will never be a perfect Christmas at our house. Instead of competing with imaginary families, now my goal is to include the Savior in every aspect of our Christmas. We won’t attend every Christmas event, but we will see some lights, talk to Santa and read about the Savior’s birth. Our scriptures may be sticky but they won’t be dusty. The kids won’t get all the gifts they ever dreamed of, but they will get some things they want or need. We are going to count presents less and blessings more. We won’t eat the perfect Christmas breakfast, but I’ve found that my kids like canned cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate as much as eggs and bacon. By involving the children in the planning and preparation of our Christmas dinner, I spend less time in the kitchen and more time with my family. We also eat food that everyone likes instead of things that just look nice on the table. We will take the time to offer prayers of thanks for all that we have. There are so many beautiful Christmas songs about Jesus and his birth. We are going to learn a few new ones and sing them often.
Then I guess my Christmas afternoons will always be spent thinking of things I want to do differently the next year. I’ll remember cross words I shouldn’t have said and good intentions that I never put into action. But I hope that with effort we’ll make improvements every year. And we’ll try to more effectively incorporate the Savior into our celebrations. I hope that in our home He will feel welcome, loved and appreciated. After all – the only truly perfect Christmas took place in Bethlehem over two-thousand years ago. And there’s no competing with that.