'Holiday' doesn't need to mean 'perfect'

Sometimes the best traditions come out of simple surprises.

While visions of sugarplums are supposedly dancing in children's heads this week, their parents are entertaining far more complicated dreams. For them, the holiday goal involves nothing less than the desire to give their families a perfect Christmas.

Early in December, all things seem possible to well-meaning adults – otherwise known as mothers – as they draw up lists of gifts to buy, decorations to make, cookies to bake, and feasts to prepare.

Those hopes and expectations are ratcheted up by advertisers and editors of women's magazines who sprinkle December headlines and articles with three sneaky little adjectives that can add up to big trouble for anyone who takes them seriously. Holiday planners, beware of these words: perfect, easy, and fast.

Consider a sampling of cover stories shouting for attention from this month's magazine racks:

"Finding the perfect tree"

"Fast & fabulous centerpieces"

"Easy holiday baking"

"1-hour decorations"

"Perfect gifts under $50"

Add to those the dozens of other articles urging readers to make elegant wrappings, festive crafts, "yummy" recipes, and beautiful wreaths – all in the name of creating new traditions – and the result is clear: Creating a "perfect" holiday is a seasonal full-time job, often incompatible with the regular full-time jobs many holiday celebrants already hold.

No wonder a new survey claims that women are more likely than men to report heightened levels of stress during the holiday season. Women are also less likely to take time to relax, says the American Psychological Association.

As wives and mothers, we could learn a few lessons from the men in our lives. They often take a far more relaxed and forgiving approach to the holidays. So the tree is a little crooked at the top and a bit sparse on the left side? Not to worry, they say. Who will really notice after it's decorated? The toy store was out of a young child's most hoped-for present? Relax, the men in the family say. It'll come in due season – a postholiday treat. And the Christmas turkey was overcooked? Ah, but that steamed pudding was one of the best ever, they reassure us.

In theory, Christmas is a time for savoring traditions. Don't change anything! we plead. What we did as a child we want to pass along to our own children.

In reality, Christmas requires an exercise in flexibility and imperfection.

Perhaps grown children must spend alternate holidays with their in-laws. Perhaps an elderly parent dies, leaving an empty place at the Christmas table. Perhaps another member of the extended family moves to an assisted-living facility and now shares Christmas with strangers who are gradually becoming friends. Although her old family traditions are only memories, there are sweet compensations in her new surroundings.

Sometimes a Christmas that starts out seeming the most imperfect and lacking can produce the most unexpected rewards.

It was supposed to be romantic: our first Christmas as newlyweds. In early November, we had exchanged wedding vows, then headed south to the Florida Panhandle to make our first home together.

There was just one little problem: Money was tight, and we couldn't fly back home for the holidays. It would be my first Christmas away from my family.

We had no tree, just a poinsettia. I had been able to buy just one gift for my parents – a book. As Midwesterners, we felt out of our element in the sunny climate with a beach nearby – not a flake of snow to be found – and palmetto trees strung with Christmas lights. Even the familiar ring of bells at Salvation Army kettles seemed out of place. Talk about imperfect!

On Christmas Eve I fought back tears. But that Dec. 25 turned into one of the sweetest holidays, forever fixed in memory. A family at our church invited us to spend Christmas with them. It was a multigeneration gathering – three young sons, parents, and grandparents, complete with a big friendly dog for good measure. There we were, on the most family-oriented day of the year, welcomed into their hearts and homes, partaking of their traditions.

That experience offered valuable early lessons in flexibility. We learned that it's not always necessary to cling to old traditions or strive for perfect celebrations. Nor is it always possible to spend Christmas in the embrace of our own families.

As tens of thousands of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan prepare for Christmas halfway around the world from their families, there won't be anything remotely "perfect" about their celebrations. No "fabulous" centerpieces, "yummy" homemade foods, or "elegant" wrappings. But as they improvise everything, they offer the rest of us a reminder: In this season of frenzy and hope, the longing to create a perfect Christmas, however successful, is really just another way of wanting to say "I love you" to families and friends, present or far away.

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