The Perfect Christmas
and the Real Christmas
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Crossing the mind of almost everyone
around this time of year
is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas.
This fantasy appears in many versions,
but a standard one
goes something like this.
An attractive old house
on its wooded parcel of land.
There’s plenty of snow on the ground,
and more is falling–
through the cold crisp air.
Inside the house,
members of a large extended family
are caught up in their holiday celebration.
Parents host their grown children
and young grandchildren,
various aunts, uncles, and cousins,
and the occasional in-law, fiancé, or friend.
The entire clan is attractive, respectable,
well-mannered, and well-spoken.
Each member is either successful in school,
advancing in a career,
or enjoying a comfortable retirement.
No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill,
chronically unemployed, or even socially inept.
All have broad smiles and straight teeth.
Most extraordinary about this gathered clan
is that all the members get along with each other!
Despite hours of proximity, rich food,
and potent drink,
no simmering hostilities boil to the surface.
No grudges are revived,
no harsh words are spoken or even muttered.
The animated conversation is mixed
with frequent laughter, celebrated memories,
and new stories.
Many hands in the kitchen
make the preparation of Christmas dinner
go quickly and peaceably,
and soon the table is covered
with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes.
Everyone sits down
and the family enjoys a splendid meal.
After the dessert,
the air echoes with compliments for the cooks.
The entire family helps clear the table
and clean up,
and it’s not long
before the kitchen counters are empty,
and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.
The presents stacked beneath the tree
are opened one by one,
and each gift delights its recipient.
It’s always the right size, color,
Children gleefully tear off
the brightly colored paper
and smile gratefully at their elders.
No one lashes out in envy,
bursts into tears,
or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys.
A dreamy state of tranquility
overcomes the revelers
as the fire in the hearth burns low.
the gentle snow continues to fall.
There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy.
Christmas never happens this way.
Christmas Day may feature drizzle
rather than snow.
Someone precious may be missing
from the family circle,
or someone hard to tolerate
may be present–
a ne’er-do-well, perhaps,
or an obnoxious, screaming child,
or a critical, controlling adult,
or an insufferable boor.
As for the rest,
they are down-to-earth people
with less-than-perfect profiles.
A little overweight, perhaps,
a little eccentric, a little shy.
The fact is that most of us
do not qualify as the best and the brightest.
We do not live lives
of which fantasies are made.
Then there are the fights–
arguments or heated discussions
or vigorous fellowship,
depending on your family’s particular euphemism.
One brother-in-law remembers
how much he resents another.
A grown-up daughter again feels
suffocated by her elderly mother.
A nephew despises the uncle
who sold him the car
with the cracked engine block.
An argument erupts in the kitchen
over the way to make turkey dressing,
and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies
about the matter.
Not all this happens every year,
but any of it could!
There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit
in the way families gather again and again
despite the often painful consequences.
Add to this the labor,
so much of which falls on the women of the household,
who are expected to make everything perfect–
the cookies, the decorating, the tree,
the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.
Our fantasy of Christmas–
our pursuit of an elusive perfection–
leads to frustration and disappointment.
When the leftovers are stored away,
the tree taken down,
and the trash put out,
we may find ourselves wondering
whether Christmas is for us.
Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect–
those perfect people
who live in an imaginary subdivision
just over the horizon.
When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas
fills our heads,
we can do ourselves a favor
by going back to the beginning.
We can look at the original Christmas
and recognize that the first Christmas
was far from perfect.
Forced by government bureaucracy,
Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem
for the sake of the census.
Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare
remains in the old hometown.
And there’s not a hotel room to be had
for love or money.
The young couple find some space out back,
inside a barn filled with farm animals.
A couple of local women help with the birth
and chuckle over the new-born boy.
tries to get his wits about him.
The months since he found out
about this disturbing pregnancy
and nearly brought his relationship with Mary
to an end
have been hard.
demanding that he accept the child,
was followed by this awkward travel
and now this sleepless night in the barn.
Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary.
The unease of pregnancy
and the discomfort of travel
give way to the pains of labor.
Once her baby is delivered,
Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep.
Yet this sleep is suddenly broken
by the unexpected arrival
of shepherds from the countryside.
These ruffians approach, caps in hand,
their eyes wild
as they proclaim a story of angels
filling the night sky with song.
Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath.
Falling to their knees,
they ask to see the baby.
They delight in Mary’s little one,
then, quickly as they came,
go off into the night,
shouting songs of praises.
They are drunk,
but not with the wine of this world.
Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.
Christmas in the barn
is far from perfect.
The circle around the manger
is made up of people with problems.
But Christmas in the barn is real.
The baby is born, wet upon the blankets.
Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him.
The small stable
becomes a wide enough place
to encompass the world,
a world of imperfect people
like you and me.
The gospel makes clear
that there’s room at the manger
for imperfect people.
The perfect Christmas of our fantasies
is something we try to accomplish on our own.
If we just bake more cookies, give more presents,
smile more broadly,
then it is sure to happen–
or so we imagine.
Yet we become frustrated time and again.
We try to live up to some fictional standard
and we end up sorely disappointed.
The gospel comes to us
as an awkward surprise,
a Christmas gift we did not foresee.
God in Christ accepts us
in our incompleteness, our imperfection.
God in Christ comes to us
in an eminently imperfect,
with all the disruptions
of a baby born in a barn
and put to bed in an animal trough.
God in Christ relates
to our little, imperfect selves
by becoming smaller, less powerful,
than any of us who are old enough
to walk and talk.
The good news is
that God knows our imperfection,
and God loves us as we are.
God does not require us to be perfect.
God only asks
that we become real,
as real as the events
in that Bethlehem stable,
as real as divine love.
What we need to do is remarkably simple:
put down the burden of the perfect Christmas
and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.
We can gather around the manger
with people who have problems,
like Joseph and Mary,
with hard-living people
like the Bethlehem shepherds.
Here imperfect people like you and me
finding a surprising acceptance.
Copyright 2014, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.