Christmas: When OK can be better than perfect

"Make them stop! Make them stop!" That's my younger daughter's advice to the people in our town who fired up their Christmas lights and decorations, even put up their trees, well before Thanksgiving.

"Don't they know they're rushing the season?" my older daughter asked.

“Make them stop! Make them stop!” That’s my younger daughter’s advice to the people in our town who fired up their Christmas lights and decorations, even put up their trees, well before Thanksgiving. “Don’t they know they’re rushing the season?” my older daughter asked.

There’s no question, those 6 a.m. sales the day after Thanksgiving do have some good deals and start the Christmas season off with a nice consumer bang (even if you run the risk of trampling Grandma on the way to electronics). If the whole family goes, we can count it as a tradition, and maybe exercise too.

The bottom line is, people in this country want their holidays the way they want them — from the artificial tree stuck fully decorated each January in the attic to the one we pile in the car and all go chop down together on Christmas week. We all have our ideas and our traditions, but there’s no one formula that makes Christmas meaningful and spiritual for one and all.

Yet that’s what we seem to expect every year — the perfect Christmas, which we might even achieve if we start putting the decorations up in July. We want the perfect gift for everyone and the home that glows with warmth and love and something that’s not too commercial but not too plain, either. But to be quite honest, perfect doesn’t work in our house (any more than does white-glove clean). We’re the family that can’t make the outside lights connect to the extension cords, even though we have the exact same lights and the exact same cords that we used last year. When the neighbors went off to see a movie recently, my husband was stringing a few modest lights in the tree in the front yard. When they came back, it was completely dark, he’d been to the hardware store more than once, and he was still stringing lights in that same tree.

Some years, the best we can hope from Christmas is not perfection, but that we give up on the rules and the way Christmas is “supposed to be.” Remember, “The first Christmas was full of people who didn’t have a home and were wandering and heavily taxed,” said Steve Shussett of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Spiritual Formation. My daughters saw this bus-stop advertisement recently and asked what it meant: “Need has no season.”

This year will be Christmas for the grandmother in the nursing home, who once had the whole family over for a big turkey dinner, but had to box up the good dishes and give them to someone else, and now settles for a small tree with a few lights sitting on a tabletop. This is Christmas for the families where someone has said “I want a divorce” and where they’re still fighting over the house and the kids and the money. This is the first Christmas for a friend who left on a routine Saturday a few months ago to take her daughter to ballet and came home to find her husband on the kitchen floor dead of a heart attack. This is Christmas for the person who left this request recently for the people at a church. “Please pray that I can find a part-time job I can walk to, or near the bus line.”

Tom Schemper, who works at a counseling center in Chicago, recently held a workshop at Fourth church there on keeping things in perspective during the holidays — a workshop attended mostly by young adults. They talked, he said, about the realities of interacting with families where people don’t see each other that often and where, when they do, some of the patterns they fall into don’t much help. Relatives ask single people when they’re going to get married, why they haven’t “settled down yet,” give them advice on how to be happy and run their lives. The people who are out of work get asked what they most dread. “What are you doing these days? Did you find something yet?” We find someone’s most vulnerable spot, then we dig right in.

This is the Christmas where persons who don’t have the money spend too much, to avoid having it feel as if they don’t have the money. This is the Christmas where some people will be lonely and depressed, some will drink too much or go off their medications. Some children will have piles of presents they’ll rip open and hardly ever play with. Others won’t even have warm socks or a responsible adult around or a bed in which to sleep.

Pastors (one of whom privately referred to Christmas as “hell week”) have their own ideas of how things should be. They’re frantically busy at work — the pageants, the candlelight services, the hospital calls — but supposed to have time for their own families too. They’re the ones insisting that no Christmas carols be sung during Advent, while being fully aware that people are blasting “Jingle Bell Rock” on the stereo in the car on the way home. They preach the real meaning of Christmas to a crowd that will spend the afternoon at the mall. They’re trying to write sermons about an old familiar story that will ring true and strong, and do some good for people who might come to church just one time for the whole year.

None of us — the moms frantically baking cookies, the travelers stuck in the airport, the singles trying to find a date for New Year’s Eve, the ones responsible for making a crooked tree stand straight and tall, the homeless, the lonely, the distraught, those who’ve been to nine stores already and still can’t find it, the ones who need something they cannot buy in any store — will have a perfect Christmas this year. Maybe we will be lucky, though.

Maybe there will be a moment of peace or forgiveness or discovery on some silent and holy night. Maybe we’ll be jolted out of our routine, be given an opportunity to look into the eyes of someone whose life is much different from ours. Maybe we’ll remember some priceless gift — health, trust, hope, babies, faith, love, a good friend or a good example — that we’ve been given, something you could never go out and buy.

Maybe we will spend some time thinking about the first Christmas story, about that spectacular child born in the night and that great familiar mystery (it’s got everything, a friend said in an e-mail recently — messages from God, a long trip, sheep and cattle, a virgin birth, angels, kings, a guiding star, not to mention “that whole salvation thing.”) Maybe this Christmas won’t be perfect, and that will be OK. If we’re lucky, we’ll have some food, some shelter, some love, some hope, a star to follow in the dark night.