I’m a mom. In 2020. Which means the pressure to be perfect is a year-round overwhelming self-destructive carousel of guilt for me. 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 Zoom parties, finding the perfect matching Christmas pajamas, hiding the endless glut of Amazon deliveries. It’s a never ending to-do list that consumes your every waking thought: gifts for coworkers, gifts for teachers, gifts for in-laws, wrapping presents, buying groceries…and, again, moving 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 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 eggnog 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.”
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. Because 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 close to us, many of whom are now gone. In fact, for me, the Christmas memories are so concentrated and overwhelming, they make it very hard to be present in the now.
As the anxiety and anticipation for the planning and execution of my daughter’s perfect Christmas sets in, I start to realize that I’m unconsciously doing something I suspect a lot of parents do at Christmas: I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to recapture the feeling of being a kid at Christmastime. I think, through recreating Christmas celebrations from our childhoods for our children, we’re all trying to rediscover something we lost. It’s as if the Christmas of our own childhood were something you could bottle — not something that has vanished. Because that feeling is a joy our brains can only feel when they’re new, when their connections are fresh and burgeoning, before they’re burdened with unpleasant information and bad experiences and before all 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 this year. I started to see that there will never be a “perfect “Christmas — not even post-pandemic. And the more I tried to force one, the more I felt like I was missing it. Christmas should evolve, but we ignore that evolution by trotting out old traditions and stubbornly treating it like an etched-in-stone institution. But Christmas, as any holiday, will continue to change. Sometimes, unbeknownst to us at the time, we will celebrate a last Christmas. Families will split up, people will pass away, and gatherings will get smaller. We will visit our parents and start to feel like their equals. We will grow up.
Ultimately, the trick with the Christmas time machine is that it’s an illusion. Everything has changed and will continue to change; our old memories are only special because we can never return to them. We finally realize that, every day, every moment, good and bad, memorable and banal, is fleeting and irreversible — and over. Then, when we stop fighting and let the push for perfection fall short, what we’re left with might be melancholy or painful, but it’s truly beautiful in its honesty.
So rather than constantly distracting ourselves and setting ourselves up with unrealistic expectations, let’s find the presence to celebrate this Christmas how it is, 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 small or nonexistent, your child is going to remember this Christmas with you — and will dream, someday, of returning to it.
A version of this story was originally published in December 2019.
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