You know the scene, right? It’s the perfect Christmas. There’s snow falling and dancing in the air like Juilliard students.
The house smells like the perfect blend of fresh rolls, gingerbread cookies, and perhaps some of your mother’s famous fudge.
The tree is comically huge and gorgeously decorated. It’s as if Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey broke into your home with a hot glue gun and crafted up a miracle in your living room.
Everyone is happy, healthy, and brimming with joy.
Yes, it’s the perfect Christmas.
Well, except for one tiny detail. For most of us, it’s sheer fiction. My Christmases as a kid couldn’t have been more different.
I spent most of my years in Virginia where some years we had a few flakes, but more often than not I wore shorts and a T-shirt and played with the new Nerf football in our green backyard.
The tree? It was almost always artificial – the kind with color-coded wire branches that had to be jammed in a splintered wooden pole.
And Santa? His beard was often scratchy, stretchy and smelled like Vienna sausages. Once he was wearing a plastic coat and pants and he clutched me like I was a hostage.
The ornaments were certainly not from Tiffany & Co. Many of them were clay thingamajigs we made in art class. By the time they got home, they were chipped and dinged. Far too many featured awkward school photos with regrettable bangs.
We didn’t have a fancy dinner with expensive china and polished silver. In fact, I’m not sure we even had a matching set of anything. The napkins weren’t cloth and the flowers on the table weren’t real.
In the morning we found no elaborate setup worthy of a photoshoot. Dad would go down a few minutes early to turn on the lights, place piles of candy on the counters and play music. I’m not sure why, but many years it was the Star Wars soundtrack on vinyl.
We didn’t tear open our gifts all at once. Someone crawled under the tree and distributed to everyone in their assigned corner of the room. We opened one at a time, going in a circle, and taking great care to admire each one. It’s one of the traditions that has persisted into my own family.
The rest of the holiday was filled with all-you-could-eat candy and mom reminding us to eat something healthy at some point before the sunset. It also seemed we always made a trip to 7-Eleven to find the batteries Santa had forgotten.
Some years we fought colds, the flu, and gnarly stomach bugs. We battled grief and depression over the loss of loved ones. Sometimes we cried more than we sang carols.
I used to wonder – why can’t I have the Christmas that I pictured every December?
All movie stars and plenty of my friends appeared to have ideal Christmases. Even as a young husband and father I remember striving to find the Christmas that played on repeat in my mind’s eye.
And yet the more I look at those imperfect holiday seasons, the more magic I find.
Though I don’t find expensive gifts through the years, I do find rich, healthy relationships.
I don’t remember treats so tasty they could have filled bakery shelves, but I do remember delicious laughter, gratitude and a full and thankful belly.
When I reflect on those years of tears, funerals, and broken hearts, I find that we climbed those mountains together.
In my new novel “Picturing Christmas” – a book I co-wrote with my brother Sterling – we imagine a young photographer named Aubrey going through a similar personal journey. Where was her perfect Christmas? Would she find it behind the lens in New York City? Why didn’t it match her memories?
I think Aubrey’s answers mirror ours.
Christmas is about homemade ornaments and poorly wrapped packages. It’s about traditions that are uniquely yours and uniquely mine. It’s about moments and memories that make no sense to anyone else but our own individual families. And yes, it’s even about the Star Wars theme song on an old record player.
Isn’t Christmas about the simplicity of a manger?
Christmas means taking a breath and pausing to reflect on the birth of the one who makes it all possible. Because contrary to the cliché, Christ isn’t just the reason for the season, he’s the reason for everything.
This year, may each of us create a real and authentic holiday. May we find joy in crooked trees, mismatched dinnerware, warm temps and even those embarrassing ornaments featuring some kid with a bad haircut.
I can’t wait! Because that’s exactly how I … picture Christmas.