Each year, something inside of me demands that this Christmas must be perfect. Not just great, you understand, not just meaningful, but absolutely soul-stirringly perfect. There must be snow. There should be lights. Gifts are given and received, with both giver and receiver blessed beyond measure by the thoughtful aptness of each perfect gift.
Friends and family gather. Differences are set aside. Children—even infants—smile benignly from tiny chairs where they wait with folded hands and upraised eyes. Awkward relatives become silver-tongued and sensitive. Departed loved ones exert their misty influence through various emblematic ornaments, cherished recipes, and well-told stories balanced with both humor and pathos. And through it all runs the golden thread of Jesus: his star topping the tree, his name on our lips, his Spirit strangely warming our hearts.
This never happens.
Last year our tree fell over.
I remember it falling in slow motion, the ornaments spilling onto the floor and crunching beneath the branches. I watched it fall and I could do nothing to stop it because Oliver was on the changing table and my hands were halfway into his loaded diaper.
As the tree fell, I watched a spreading stain on the carpet and remembered that I’d just filled its reservoir with two gallons of fresh water. I’d bought the cheap plastic tree holder the big box store recommended. Afterwards, I looked at the reviews on Amazon. There were a lot of one-star citations. One woman wrote, “Buy this cheap stand and save money so you can purchase a whole new set of irreplaceable heirloom ornaments when your tree falls over.” I liked that lady. I thought we would get along well.
Oliver thought it was hilarious. He danced around while I placed dripping fabric and shards of glass in a paper bag. I found the fractured spine of a ceramic angel still fluttering its wing. Ollie asked me this November if our tree would fall again.
The idea of Christmas perfection runs deep. When I was a boy, sometimes I’d fake an illness just so I could stay home from school in December and lay on the couch admiring our Christmas tree. I drew pictures of spruce needles and colored lights and imagined myself living inside a snow-globe-like world of perfect powder and Victorian carolers. Christmas perfection became, in a sense, a type of idol for me. An experience I could use to replace the presence of Jesus with a well-choreographed ballet of sensory pleasures. I didn’t mean to do it. It just sort of happened.
Two years ago, I tried to take Ollie’s Christmas portrait at home. I dressed him as an elf and put him in a chair with a wreath and lights. I got one good shot, but most looked something like this:
I felt disappointed.
It’s as if I depend on the perfect alignment of circumstances and people and props to validate the significance of this day. It is a day unlike any other, the day of my Savior’s birth. Shouldn’t it reflect that glory? Shouldn’t it likewise be perfect?
I guess I feel like a failure if my Christmas efforts are just “good enough.”
Nevertheless, year after year, decade after decade, entropy, gravity, and original sin enter the picture to take my perfect Christmas down.
I shouldn’t act surprised. The first Christmas wasn’t so perfect, either.
Think about it.
An imperial decree goes out to the Roman provinces guaranteed to cause discomfort and expense. Everyone travel to your hometown to be registered in a census. Tax documents to follow. Have your assets and deductions ready. Poor and nine months pregnant? Sorry lady, move along.
I can see Joseph looking at the setting sun, gauging the pace of his donkey and the state of his wife. Everyone else hurries past, making for Bethlehem before dark. Joseph’s a man like any other man. Surely he fights a feeling of frustration and failure. He knows the inns are first-come-first-served. He doesn’t own a rewards card. He couldn’t call ahead. Mary’s contractions are building and hurrying the donkey’s pace will only hasten the baby’s arrival. I wonder if Joseph felt a sense of betrayal. How could God let this happen?
It’s after dark and the inn, as Joseph knew it would be, is full. He’s not too proud to beg. Mary’s condition demands it. The innkeeper shakes his head. It’s late. Too late. Head out back to the shed. Yeah, I see your wife. Yeah, I know she’s pregnant. That’s why I’m letting you stay here. Count your blessings, buddy. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.
This Christmas, too, will be good enough.
After all the effort, all the hope, all the shopping and wrapping and shipping, all the Christmas-tree cutting and Nativity scene setting, all the emails and texts and plane tickets and coordinating, the candlelight services and Charlie Brown specials and mangled Pinterest projects, it will be good enough. Good enough to draw your heart toward that first Christmas. Good enough to make a place in your heart–however imperfect–for Jesus.
We don’t have a lot of money. Trees fall. Kids throw up or fall over or poop on things besides diapers. Sometimes adults do, too. But in the midst of those things, the thread of Jesus does run through our Christmas. His star does top our tree. His Spirit does strangely warm our hearts. And the first Christmas reminds us that when circumstances and people fail, God is still working out his beautiful things all the time.
Sometimes “good enough” truly is perfect.