I woke up early, the pitch black room a clear indication that morning was still a long way off. But excitement dictated that I push from my warm covers and slip down the stairs.
I stopped to wake up my brother, sound asleep on the floor next to my bed.
“C’mon,” I hissed in his ear. “It’s morning!”
Only it wasn’t morning. It was 4:00, still nighttime to most reasonable folks.
Together, we tiptoed down the stair case, and we peeked around the corner. The Christmas tree lit up the family room, tucked away in the corner just out of sight. With strict order not to go peeking under the tree without our parents, we turned right and headed to their room.
“It’s Christmas!” I yelled, bounding onto the bed. Mom groaned, but dad shot up out of bed.
“Go back to your rooms!” he cried. “Let us get ready.”
Mom pulled the pillow over her head and mumbled something about it being ungodly to be up at such an hour. Dad laughed at her and he turned on the radio beside the bed. Here Comes Santa Clause warbled from the speakers as dad danced and mom yawned, and my brother and I wriggled with anticipation in our bedrooms, waiting to be called out.
Christmas was magical as a kid. Everything about it leaves behind the warm scent of family and love, all stored in the recesses of my memory. Though time and life have left spaces in our family, when I think of Christmas I can only remember joy and laughter.
Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I lost a bit of that whimsy. Motherhood brought with it a pressure to create these perfect memories for my children. I worried that I would fail, and somehow they’d look back on their Christmas memories with sadness and disappointment.
The pressure I felt to do Christmas right – to design the perfect Christmas experience – began to weigh so heavily on me, that I dreaded Christmas altogether.
The gingerbread house fell apart.
The presents were never perfect.
The cookies burned.
The children bickered.
I over-planned our days.
I didn’t do enough with them.
We didn’t hang lights on the house.
On and on the list grew until I longed for January to sweep on through, bypassing December altogether. People posted photos online, counting down until Christmas, and my bah humbug heart twisted up in knots.
Until I decided to stop.
I quit overthinking, and simply started living. I forced myself to really remember the Christmases of my youth, and when I did, I realized they were never perfect. I remember only one or two gifts from all my years growing up. I don’t remember if we made cookies, or decorated gingerbread houses.
I don’t remember a single Christmas party, or what I wore Christmas day.
All I remember is family. I remember laughter and music. I remember mom grumbling about the early mornings, but laughing delightedly on the video as my brother and I tore into our gifts.
I remember it being dark outside while we opened presents, and laying in front of the fire as the sun slowly rose over the snowy Wisconsin landscape of my youth.
When I embrace the holiday memories, I realize that I don’t need to manufacture anything for my children. They don’t need perfect, coordinated Christmas pajamas. In fact, I think they’d prefer not to wear matching jammies.
My kids won’t remember all the little details of the holidays. Instead, they will play out Christmas memories on a highlight reel. They’ll remember joy, and anticipation. They’ll remember traditions, like the gingerbread house falling over every single year.
(Seriously – how do you get those things to stick together?!)
They’ll remember the way mom sang O Holy Night at the top of her lungs while she made cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.
They’ll remember watching White Christmas every Christmas Eve.
When I let myself off the hook, and allow the imperfections of life to define the beauty of our days, it’s easy to be swept up in Christmas spirit.
I’ll probably burn a few cookies this year, and I can’t guarantee everyone will like the gifts I choose. We may be busier than I’d prefer, and perhaps the gingerbread house will fall over again (for real – how do you get those things to stick together?!), but I know with certainty that all of us will look back on Christmas with an abundance of joy.