The pressure to be perfect is a year-round overwhelming self-destructive carousel of guilt moms can’t seem to exit. And why should Christmas be any different? It starts the second Halloween ends, you’re still picking heath bars out of your teeth when the plans for the Christmas card photo shoot begin: location, wardrobe, optimal time of day. Then it’s off to the jolly races, baking millions of cookies, attending pageants and parties, finding the perfect Christmas dress, hiding the endless glut of Amazon deliveries. It’s a never ending to-do list that consumes your every waking thought, gifts for coworkers, teachers, in-laws, wrap presents, buy groceries…again, move that damn elf.
I’m racked with guilt over the traditions I’m not carrying on well enough, for not bothering with a real tree. I’m so busy my house smells like vanilla and pine only from candles. I’m trying to mentally schedule my time for the two busiest weeks of the year as if I’m actually three people. The advent calendar is emptying out, and there isn’t enough boozy egg nog in the world to calm my nerves. I toss and turn at night and am mocked, not by dancing sugar plums, but by realizations like “I have to get a gift for the dog walker, and it probably shouldn’t be dog themed.”
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And through all the exhaustion, the piling expenses, the trips to Homegoods for the festive yet stylish indoor holiday décor, I’m plagued with an unexplained dread. Beyond the season’s implied pressure to have the best possible time, and cram priceless memories down everyone’s throats like so much unwanted fruitcake, there’s an awful fear that Christmas won’t meet anyone’s expectations, and after all that preparation it will end too fast and in disappointment. I can almost feel it slipping through my fingers as the days get shorter and darker. I wondered where that uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was coming from, why I was setting expectations so high that I was readying myself for a letdown before it even happened.
I considered this while unpacking bins of Christmas decorations from our basement storage. In them, carefully packed in boxes and paper are “first Christmas” ornaments, souvenirs from vacations, I even have my original stocking with my name scrolled across the cuff in glitter glue. Christmas is a time machine. Everything we see in our homes, at stores and on television is infested with nostalgia, the smells, the aesthetics, we’re instantly and constantly transported to memories of traditions, special moments with people who are now gone, the memories are so concentrated and overwhelming they make it very hard to be present.
As the anxiety and anticipation for the planning and execution of my daughter’s perfect Christmas sets in, I’m starting to realize I’m unconsciously doing something that I suspect a lot of parents do at Christmas. I’m trying to recapture the feeling of being a kid at Christmas, I think we’re all trying to rediscover something we lost, as if it’s something you can bottle, and not just vanished. It’s a joy your brain can only feel when it’s new, when its connections are fresh and burgeoning, before it’s burdened with unpleasant information and bad experiences and the mundanities of life have piled up. I realize I’m not simply unselfishly creating a Christmas morning for my daughter, to some degree I’m trying to relive my own.
That realization hit me particularly hard, among the loose glitter, tangled lights and scent of cinnamon. I started to see that there will never be a perfect Christmas, and the more I tried to force it, the more I felt like I was missing it. Christmas evolves, we ignore it by trotting out old traditions, and stubbornly treat it like an institution. But it continues to change. Sometimes unbeknownst to us, we celebrate a last Christmas. Families split up, people pass away, and gatherings get smaller. We visit our parents, and start to feel like equals. We grow up.
Ultimately the trick with the Christmas time machine is, it’s an illusion. Everything has changed and will continue to, and those memories are only special because you can never return to them. You finally realize that every day, every moment, good and bad, memorable and banal, is fleeting and irreversible and over. When you stop fighting and let the push for perfection fall short, what you’re left with might be a little melancholy and painful, but truly beautiful in its honesty. We’re all constantly distracting ourselves with unrealistic expectations, but hopefully, finding the presence to celebrate this Christmas before it’s gone.
Because Christmas is never perfect until it’s gone, until you have some distance, until you can’t get it back. Christmas is perfect in our memories. So even if your cookies are store bought, your tree is plastic, and your gifts didn’t put you into debt, your child is going to remember Christmas with you, and someday wish to return to it.
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