A smaller, imperfect Christmas

Marcy O’Brien

Christmas decorating and baking, house prep and meal planning should be simple by now. I’ve been doing this countdown to Christmas for so many decades that I should have the process perfected. Forgeddabouddit. I’m lost as usual.

I have no one but myself to blame. Isn’t our American Christmas supposed to be a feast for the senses? Somewhere along the line, I must have read too many magazines with pictures of holiday perfection. Isn’t that the magazine’s goal – to create that desire? Well, years ago it worked on me.

I bought in. Yup, my holiday home should be visually festive and smelling like pine and baking and chocolate. The presents should be wrapped all in a matching theme like red and gold foil or coordinated tartan plaids all stacked around the twinkling, colorful tree. Windows should be filled with candles as tabletops and mantels fill up with greens and German nutcrackers, crystal trees and lights, lights, lights.

And each year I fail myself.

This year is different. I’m going to fail again, but I’m getting philosophical about it.

Years of making 20 pounds of buttercrunch then packaging and delivering? Maybe not. Wait – not maybe. . . definitely not. Ten batches of cookies all snug in their tins? Well, maybe 6 batches or 4. . . or an early trip to the Methodist Church’s cookie walk this morning. I’m going to try not to beat myself up.

Each year, as the Christmas decorations come out and the shopping lists are made I think I am going to pare down and simplify. I’m finally beginning to realize that as much as I love the over-the-top decorations and the feasting, it has finally become wishful thinking. I’m stuck admitting that intellectually I understand the need for less, much less. I’m finding it difficult to let go of the dream.

I play Christmas music while I decorate the tree – the 7-foot tree that bears all the hundreds of ornaments that the old 10-foot tree used to wear. But now I also want to be steady stepping up and down the footstool and for tree decorating not to take 3 days. I could leave one entire ornament box unopened – but then “they” wouldn’t all be there – all my old nostalgic ornament friends, each with their memories and stories.

I would like the presents at least wrapped when the family arrives instead of always hunting for hidden early purchases on Christmas morning. I hate myself for succumbing to stuffing the last handful of presents into gift bags. I used to create magic wielding the tape dispenser and rolls of two-sided wrapping paper. Magic isn’t happening much this Christmas.

I always picture the elegant dinners for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day along with the pre-made Christmas morning casserole. The picture-perfect dinners aren’t going to be. No budget-breaking tenderloin or a crown roast of pork. Well maybe one dinner, but not both

And why is it that I usually realize at midnight Christmas Eve that I haven’t made that morning “time-saver” casserole? I thought the 2:00 a.m. Christmas Eves would be over after the kids grew up.

The Buy List and the To-do List have been written for a while. As I cross five items off the list, I seem to add four. The end is not in sight yet.

But I’m trying. And the slowing body is helping me to get less done . . . the new simplification goal. Same dreams, same plans, less output. Well, it’s one way to get there.

Thank God for the few, old reliable memories . . . the little things that don’t change and conjure up all the Christmases past. My favorite is the world’s smallest nativity. It’s proof that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

I was five when Mom found our first apartment following the family split. She began that year to make Christmas her way for the two of us. She brought home from the five and dime a small fitted box. It contained 4 little wax figures each about 2 inches tall. The tiny Christmas family has been with me ever since.

Mary, the mother, is kneeling. She is white wax except for the light blue veil over her head and shoulders. The standing Joseph is clad in a brown robe much like a monk. The color of his hair is almost totally rubbed off now. I always stand the wee lamb beside the watchful St. Joe. I place the white oval crèche cradling the babe at the center of the 3 surrounding figures.

I have loved this little quartet for over 70 years. They’ve come out of hiding every Christmas whether they were stored in San Diego, Boston, many towns in Connecticut or upstate New York. They even traveled to Rochester General the Christmas that I spent in the middle of many weeks in the hospital. And though they live year-round now in a drawer, their years in storage haven’t melted or faded them.

They represent for me, the simple story of Christmas. The fact that they are so small, humble and so basic says it all. I had a big manger set over the years – with wise men, shepherds, seraphim and cherubim, cows, camels, and sheep. Downsizing the household dictated the end of the complete manger tableau. My tiny holy family is enough.

I’d like to think it should be enough for the season – remembering the reason – and the annual coming together of a family that it also represents for me. But of course, that’s what I’d like to think of the season, not what really happens.

But whether the house is Christmas perfection – it won’t be – or the presents are wrapped, or the food is heavenly, none of the unrealistic expectations matter as much as just being together with the family. I guess I always considered the falderal of the holiday as part of my gift to them. Being a slow learner has taken its toll on my body, my sanity, and my holiday sleep.

Eight hours sack time on Christmas Eve is going to be part of my new standard of perfection. My Christmas gift to me – with love and devotion. Simply perfect.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Marcy O’Brien, retired Executive Director of the award-winning Struthers Library Theatre, writes from the Glade Township home she shares with Dear Richard and Finian, a Maine Coon kitten. A fifteen-year columnist for the Times Observer, she is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.