This is the season of superlatives, when wishes for the "happiest holidays" and the "merriest Christmas" fly cheerily and bountifully through the December air.
But it is also a season when the pursuit of perfection - the desire to create "the best Christmas ever" - works against the very happiness well-wishers are trying to spread. As calendars count down to the 25th, even the best-organized Christmas planners sometimes find their merriment dimmed by anxious questions at 3 a.m.: Have I bought enough gifts? Have I baked enough cookies? Is the house fully decorated? Will guests have a good time?
For many Christmas Perfectionists, the quest for the best-ever holiday begins with a search for The Perfect Card. It continues at the tree lot, where a prolonged hunt for The Perfect Tree can test the patience of shivering family members, who argue that a tree is a tree.
Back home, the tree must be hung with Perfect Decorations. Then there is the need to buy The Perfect Gift for everyone on the list, each gift perfectly wrapped. Oh, yes - and don't forget The Perfect Christmas Dinner, ideally cooked from scratch.
Who are the Grinches that unwittingly steal the merry from merry Christmas by creating all these unrealistic demands on time and energy?
One accusing finger can be pointed at women's magazines. For decades, editors have filled December issues with promises of perfect celebrations, complete with hundreds of time-consuming ways to achieve them. Under the headline, "Bring Home the Joy," Woman's Day offers "768 festive ideas" for the holidays. Its current issue includes another "125 last-minute ways to make merry."
No wonder editors feel compelled to include an article titled "Tis the season for ... stress."
Retailers also must share the blame, with holiday decorations now appearing by Halloween, and nonstop ads suggesting legions of ideas for "the perfect gift." The phrase "Shop 'til you drop" takes on new meaning.
Ironically, these ever-more-intense ideals for holiday celebrations come at at time when a majority of women - who are, in general, the creators and keepers of holiday traditions - work outside the home. Their multiple responsibilities would logically make a case for simplifying the holidays, rather than ratcheting up expectations.
Whenever I need a seasonal reality check, a reminder that Christmas hasn't always been shadowed by a frenzied quest for perfection, I haul my great-grandfather's diaries down from the attic and read his descriptions of long-ago holiday celebrations in their small Wisconsin town.
On Christmas Eve 1900, he wrote: "Christmas tree program at church. Rather slim tree and slim attendance." The following day he added: "Had a Christmas dinner (chicken and suet pudding). I got a pr. of slippers from wife and bookmarker from Mary."
A few years later, his Christmas Day entry read: "All the Frisbies (13) here. Wife had 2 lilies on the table. I got Washington Irving's book and gave wife some hand-painted dishes. Good skating on pond."
"Wife" was undoubtedly busy, but nothing in his entries sounds even remotely hectic.
Perfectionism is the enemy of happiness. It is an exercise in frustration, setting Christmas Perfectionists up for disappointment and the feeling that they've come up short.
Imperfection has its ragged, laughter-producing charms. A lopsided tree, a gift wrapped in newsprint, cookies that stayed in the oven a bit too long, a carol sung off-key around the piano - who knows? They just might be the perfect - make that imperfect - ingredients that help to keep the merry in merry Christmas.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society