Now that visions of sugarplums and Norman Rockwell scenes are dancing in our heads, it’s not unusual for grown-ups to hold onto idealistic and specific images of holiday comfort and joy. Whether our parents succeeded in bringing painting-worthy traditions to fruition or failed miserably, many of us feel obliged to either continue the magic or make up for its absence in our own youth. To make matters worse, our generation has June Cleaver’s pineapple upside-down cake and John-Boy’s nighttime ritual hanging over our heads. Regardless of their roots, these kinds of towering expectations are what I refer to as the Norman Rockwell Trap or Not in Real Time (NRT).

I remember those days when we positioned our kids for holiday photos demanding that they portray an ever-so-happy and grateful family. The results were telling with eyes rolled, noses scrunched, classic pout, elbow jab, devil sign, squatting dog, baggy eyes (mine), and that recognizable when-is-this-going-to-be-over slouch. There were years we rushed off to church with sneers and comments about being late, made midnight trips to 7-Eleven for toy batteries, or forgot to leave cookies and milk for Santa. Oops.

Two years ago, four out of five of us woke up with food poisoning on Christmas day. The “lucky” one sat twiddling her thumbs with drapes drawn, stockings full, and uncooked food tumbling out of the refrigerator. We look back on that would-be debacle as our “Late but white Christmas” since we celebrated in a blizzard on the 26th. I’ve heard story after story about fireplace puff backs, unfilled stockings, still-frozen turkeys, burned scones and 11-foot Christmas trees crashing down in the middle of the night.

It’s not that these occurrences are in themselves devastating, but rather our unhelpful reactions to them. A tree crashing down becomes a positive or negative memory depending on what follows: a) We wake up, sip hot chocolate, and sort through the wreckage recounting why certain ornaments meant so much to us; or b) Mom blames Dad for not securing the tree to the wall as her father, uncles, grandfather, and brother did.

My best piece of advice is to lower expectations to the bare basics, so that anything more feels like icing on the fruitcake. The sheer acts of baking cookies, hanging lights, eating together, and visiting Grandma are logistical goals likely to be met. The good feelings that come with each small success bring us one step closer to comfort and joy – not the picture-perfect Rockwell kind but those fabulously flawed moments that come in real time.

Our warmest experiences will likely come when we least expect and after we’ve surrendered the need to create something specific. When the chocolate soufflé flops and the situation we find ourselves in doesn’t quite match the one portrayed on grandpa’s wall, we should be gentle with ourselves and recognize the merits of lowering the bar for our children. Just as the perfect parent would raise the perfect child unfit for society, the perfect holiday would set an unattainable precedent for our kids and their families.

We’ll do everyone a favor if we leave June Cleaver’s cake behind and instead take a page from Gloria’s (of the popular sitcom “Modern Family”) cookbook: Mix a dose of humor with a dollop of perspective and put the fun back in dysfunction.

Holiday Card illustration by Sally Tobin


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