It was the first week of October when my husband, David, and I went to see the new large department store in town. We walked the aisles looking at all the new fall sweaters and kitchen utensils. Soon we found our way to the Christmas decorations—animated Santa Clauses, musical ornaments, sparkling lights … It took just one whiff of cinnamon spice candles, and I was transported to a Christmas fairyland.

In my mind I saw my family bustling around the kitchen—my mother tasting the pecan pie filling, my dad proudly transporting the roast to the table, nieces and nephews scattered around the house with new dolls and toy trains.

I love Christmas! I thought, shivering with holiday tingles.

David called me over, waking me from my trance. Seeing him reminded me it was that same Christmas dreaming that got me into trouble last year when family circumstances abruptly changed our holiday plans. My pouting nearly ruined the holiday for David and me.

I could have had a very happy Christmas like everyone else. I was still able to see my family. There were gifts, delicious treats and warm smiles as always. Everything was as it should be. It just wasn’t the way I wanted everything to be.

The Christmas lie

Ask anyone to describe his or her “perfect Christmas,” and every description would be different. There’s nothing wrong with excitement about Christmas—it is a joyous occasion. But when one starts to try to create or expect Christmas to be the way he imagines it to be, that’s where the trouble starts.

I know I’ve been guilty. Perhaps you’ve had similar feelings. Have you ever worked for days decorating your house or tree, only to be disappointed that no one mentioned it? Ever spend hours on dinner, only to find that no one tasted your new (and difficult) recipe you were so proud of? Ever shop for days for the ideal gift, only to find the recipient didn’t have that look of surprised appreciation you were wanting?

If any of these feelings hit home with you like they do me, you have fallen victim to the Christmas lie … the lie that says everything has to be “perfect” (the way we want it) to have a wonderful Christmas.

I have a planner personality—one that likes to have all my t’s crossed and i’s dotted in advance. But when I put so much emphasis on plans and order, I unwittingly undermine the whole meaning and purpose of Christmas.

Suddenly the holiday that is meant to be outwardly focused—giving instead of receiving, putting others first, peace and goodwill towards men, reminding us of the humble, servant life that Christ lived—becomes a day of selfish sarcastic sulking.

The truth is that the real holiday experience will never live up to the potential in our imaginations. There will be last-minute changes, money issues, presents that don’t quite hit the mark, etc., but that’s not bad. There is no such thing as the perfect Christmas. What makes it perfect is keeping focused on what it’s meant to be—a celebration of the Life that came from heaven and changed the world.

The culprits … and what to do about them

After that frustrating year I decided to put away my expectations and enjoy the holiday as it comes. No pressure, no guessing, no getting bent out of shape. But first I had to learn what I was battling. Where do these dreams of perfection come from? What makes us believe certain elements must exist in order for Christmas to be “perfect”?

In my life, I’ve found they come from three main sources: childhood memories, Hollywood depictions, and temptations of marketing.

This is not an exhaustive list of expectation-makers. Each of us has our own unique experiences that sway our opinions. But I believe these three influences are over-arching in our culture and affect almost all of us. By attacking them at the beginning of the season, perhaps we can take down our lofty expectations and enjoy Christmas for what it was meant to be.

The ghost of Christmas past: Putting away childish things

Memories are a wonderful way to connect with the past. They are God’s gift allowing us to remember personalities that are now gone and experiences that changed our lives. I love to remember my favorite childhood Christmas memories—special gifts, surprises, and family stories.

It amazes me how reminiscing can still give me glowing feelings, making it almost addictive. As wonderful as it is, this can be a problem, too. You see, in my Christmas dreams, everyone is content and smiling. As a child, I was not sensitive to the worries of my parents and to the strains of personal relationships among family members.

Perhaps it’s just the imagination of a child’s mind that carries through to adulthood. Or maybe it’s a longing in our hearts to return to those innocent times that make memories so unrealistically beautiful. Either way, when we compare Christmas present with Christmas past, the current times never seem to measure up to our memories.

It’s good to have fond recollections. I don’t suggest that we should all stoically live out the rest of our holidays. As a matter of fact, I think parents and grandparents should tell stories of the past to improve the lives of children in the future.

But when we allow Christmas memories to dictate our expectations of the present holidays, it’s time to let go of the old, and get ready for the new. The apostle Paul alludes to this same transition from past to present in 1 Corinthians 13, saying, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (vs. 11).

As adults, we should recognize what is in the past and let it stay in the past. Those times were good and should be learned from and cherished. But the present holds the potential to bring new experiences to treasure.

Allow your Christmases to transform from year to year. This year, put away the old memories in a mental photo album and embrace the changes that occur. Then enjoy watching as God turns these unexpected adjustments into new memories that will last a lifetime.

Refusing to believe Hollywood

Watching Christmas movies has always been a tradition in our home. They inspire, encourage, and remind us of the virtues of Christmas. But we should be careful not to fall victim to the subtle images of Christmas perfection displayed in the movies. In many of these films, everyone has plenty of money to spend on gifts; the house is always lovely with no messes or worn-out decorations; and everyone is always happy in the end.

Unfortunately, real life Christmases aren’t always so glamorous. For most of us, money is an ongoing issue, decorations are sorely underrated compared to Hollywood standards, and family circumstances don’t always turn out so well.

It’s tempting to make that Hollywood image of Christmas our goal. If we give in to the idea that we can recreate a world that lives in someone’s imagination, expectations are set way too high.

It’s practically guaranteed we will fail. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to reconstruct what Hollywood spent millions on, enhanced with fancy camera angles and professional actors.

Instead, cultivate a heart of gratitude this year. Be thankful for all that you have and for what God is going to provide in the future. Remember the instruction of the Ten Commandments not to covet what we do not have (Exodus 20:17). A heart of contentment will always keep your life in proper perspective. When we appreciate and realize all that we have, how can we not be grateful?

Looking beyond the marketing

Christmas marketing has gone almost out of control in America. Marketers know that holiday emotions are a weak spot for consumers, and they use our sentiments against us, promising all kinds of happiness and excitement in exchange for our holiday savings.

The retailer’s job is to make us feel we cannot have a merry Christmas without their product or service. So they create displays that quietly beckon us with beautiful dangerous melodies, “If you buy me, your family will be so much happier. You’ll have the warmest Christmas you’ve ever had. Everyone will love being in your home.”

If we don’t navigate the holiday commercialization cautiously, we can easily feel discontent with what we already have. Or we can be disappointed by what we can’t afford. We can even become disillusioned by the marketing lies and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars, only to find that Christmas is no merrier than it was last year.

Remember the words of Christ, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:21). We don’t need treasures of this world to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control. These are things that the world cannot offer at any price. They are free gifts to those who have the life of the Holy Spirit living in them.

Christmas trappings are only a shadow of treasure, but the real gifts are the things we already possess. This year, let us focus on passing out these gifts, giving them freely to others, and learning to enjoy them within our own hearts. Let us put our expectations of joy and fulfillment in the offerings of Christ instead of the world.

A truly perfect Christmas

I stood in that department store with the Christmas lights sparkling all around me, and I was ashamed that my selfishness had taken away so much of the real Christmas. I thought of all the reasons I had to celebrate a loving and generous God—a wonderful husband, a loving family, needs met, and of course, the greatest gift of all, salvation.

My eye caught a Nativity set on the shelf, and I looked long and hard at it. There was a young first-time mother with nothing over her head but a barn, a stepfather who only had his carpenter skills to care for his growing family, a few smelly animals, and a helpless baby—the Savior of the world—who only had a feeding trough to sleep in.

But there it was … a truly perfect Christmas.

I’m sure that was not what Mary expected when she was told she would bear the Messiah. Perhaps Joseph felt inadequate as a provider when the only shelter he could find for his travailing wife was a barn. But it was all part of God’s plan, whether they knew it or not, to fulfill the greatest love story the world has ever seen. And it wasn’t done in spite of unexpected circumstances, but in light of them.

I decided to put away my expectations for the “perfect” Christmas—no more hope placed in conditions or gifts or decorations. Like the night Christ was born, even the most humble circumstances can become memories of a lifetime when we put the focus of our affection where it’s meant to be. I consciously put my hope in Christ—the only perfection I will ever need.

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