(This essay appeared elsewhere in a somewhat different form.)
The advertisement from a local store read, “Creating the perfect holiday season.” Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Bombarded by television commercials, newspaper ads, and a plethora of magazine covers all proclaiming to have the secret to creating that perfect holiday celebration, we are expected (nay, impelled) to deliver. And woe to the woman (or man, but let’s be frank – the onus to produce that perfect event falls predominantly onto the shoulders of women) who can’t deliver. Self-esteem plummets. Stomach linings thin along with tempers and nerves. Ridicule (real or imagined, inflicted or self-induced) looms. Wolfish relatives and neighbors close in for the kill. And the holiday is “ruined.”
So here’s my challenge to everyone: Don’t martyr yourself this year. Instead of fleeing to the nearest store (and into debt) because your dishes don’t match this year’s classic tableau or your table isn’t decked in the current favorite colors or the store just sold the last of this season’s “in” toy and won’t have any more until January, throw your arms wide and embrace the Imperfect Holiday.
Stop rolling your eyes, and trust me when I say this. The Imperfect Holiday is a wonderful thing. It’s where stories come from. (As a writer, I know the importance of stories.)
I also know that you’ve just flashed on every one of those awful stories that gets exhumed each year, the stories that make you wish that the individual telling it (usually for the umpteenth time and with malicious glee) would choke on their eggnog. This year instead of getting frustrated or angry or annoyed, instead of trying to one-up them by recalling an even more embarrassing story about them (thereby beginning the emotional avalanche everyone fears at family gatherings and which almost always occurs), try laughing instead. Give that poor one-note bastard a hug and let it go. If it gives them joy to belabor an old embarrassment, let them. Besides, if you show it doesn’t bother you anymore, they might just stop. No promises, but it’s been known to happen.
My challenge is extended as much to myself as it is to anyone. I am victim to the annual repetition of “the year you sprayed whipped cream on Mrs. Carley’s arm and then cried,” so I know how you feel. If this individual – who has had her own hard knocks in life – needs to tell this story (which is at least thirty-five years old) in order to make herself feel better during the holidays, that’s her issue, not mine.
The thing to keep in mind (and my point several paragraphs back), is that Imperfect Holidays are filled with good stories, too; stories that should be shared and recited. For instance:
- The year Joey sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and blew out the menorah.
- The year we didn’t feel like cooking a big meal for just the two of us, and made a Christmas pizza instead.
- The year we lost electricity just as the turkey was coming out of the oven. The potatoes had to be mashed with two forks, but we didn’t have any vegetables or whipped cream for the dessert. We ate by candle light and then everyone wrapped up in blankets and we started reading The Hobbit to the kids.
- The year Luke wanted to know where Jesus’s birthday cake was.
(Those are all true stories, by the way; things I’ve experienced directly or were recounted to me (accompanied by much laughter).
It seems to me that the joy of the holiday – heck, of each and every day – lies not in having matching cloth napkins or Waterford crystal, but in stories like those above. Happiness does not come from creating the latest ‘look’ as expounded by the magazines that would have you believe there’s something in you that is wanting if you don’t make your own wreath. It doesn’t come from having a family that gets along 24/7 (or even 3/1, although that would be nice). It comes from finding – and embracing – those moments which, in retrospect, are edged in gold.
Some of you who read this will say, “Well, that’s all fine and good if you have the money to even have a meal or a place to stay.” You’re right. It’s easy for me to suggest embracing the imperfect from my house in the suburbs where I’m not facing most of life’s tougher issues. (Although those who know me will know precisely what I am facing this season.)
May I recount one more story?
Joan shared an apartment with Ruth in one of Pittsburgh’s economically poorer neighborhoods. Joan was unemployed, hopping from temp job to temp job as she could. Ruth worked in construction, but winter was down time and there was no work to be had. Making rent every month was an ordeal, never mind finding a way to pay for utilities and groceries. They found themselves on Christmas Eve with no tree, no presents, no food and not much joy. Unbeknownst to the other, each emptied out coat pockets, searched under couch cushions, rifled through drawers and under car seats in the search for money. Joan came up with a few dollars. So did Ruth. Separately they went out shopping.
That night, Ruth presented Joan with a two-liter bottle of her favorite soda, which she hadn’t had in months because they didn’t have the money to spare on that “luxury”. Joan gave Ruth her favorite sandwich from the local sub shop which, likewise, Ruth hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. Sitting by the glow of cheap tree lights strung over the couch, they split the sandwich and shared the soda.
I didn’t make this up. It’s a true story. I knew Joan and Ruth (although those are not their real names). Years later, whenever either of them mentioned that particular Christmas, it wasn’t with sorrow over their poor condition or dismay at not having the finer touches of what society deems a ‘perfect’ holiday. They always smiled with the remembered joy of discovering, once again, how deep their friendship runs.
Relax this year, if you can. Understand that all the perfect place settings in the world mean diddly compared to the treasures that might be found if you just let the season be.