Catholic Voices - The perfect Christmas

Photo: Janis Olson Photo: Janis Olson

Finally. The perfect Christmas. That was the plan anyway. Our daughters, Kathy and Beth, would each fly home, we’d go to Christmas Eve Mass, open presents the next morning, dine while sharing memories and laughter — all perfect.

Jan Alkire
Jan Alkire

On December 17 my husband, Fred, and I put up a tree and other holiday decor, including our favorite: the Italian manger scene that always graces our mantel. On December 18, reality marched in via a phone call. “Mom,” wailed Kathy. “I have chicken pox! The airline won’t let me fly because I’m contagious.”

So Fred and I tossed a pillow and blanket into our Westphalia van and headed off to Spokane to pick up our ailing daughter. For the first 100 miles, I hosted a pity party for myself. “Lord,” I whined, “why doesn’t Christmas ever work out?”

This question segued into a review of Imperfect Christmases Past. It went on longer than “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But finally it led to the most imperfect Christmas of all: the original one.

Mary and Joseph probably expected Jesus’ birth to take place at home with a midwife and loved ones. Instead, a census shattered any plans they may have made. At the worst possible time, they had to trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Our 600-mile round-trip drive took place in a warm vehicle while listening to Christmas carols. If I had been ordered to travel anywhere while pregnant, Caesar Augustus himself couldn’t have made me go.

Some Christmases go far beyond the imperfect into the tragic. During our cross-state trip we passed a traffic fatality. All we could see of the dead man’s life were his papers blowing along the highway, sad reminders of how swiftly life can pass. I said a prayer for the family that learned on that December day that a loved one would never again spend Christmas with them.

When I look at all my Christmases past, I see that not one of them has fit the images projected in TV ads: smiling, healthy families in color-coordinated outfits, gathered gaily around their color-coordinated trees. There’s always a mom, a dad and two well-behaved youngsters. They laugh excitedly as they unwrap a computer, a jacket, a bike or some other material goodie available, of course, from the advertiser. Nobody is covered with red, crusted blotches of chicken pox. No one is divorced or widowed. No family member is missing, no adult is drunk, no child has the stomach flu and, for sure, no one is fighting.

What ads show us is perfection à la the world. They wouldn’t have wanted to feature our family that year. Beth couldn’t fly home because fog shrouded SeaTac for days. Our beloved pet died on Christmas Eve. And Kathy was still sick.

As I sat alone in the living room on Christmas night and morosely pondered my plans-gone-wrong, my gaze fell on the Italian manger scene. Thirteen figures stood focusing on the 14th: Jesus. Mary, Joseph, wise men, sheep, shepherds, donkey — all had their eyes riveted on the baby in the manger. Even as carved figures, their attention seemed complete.

Looking at the scene in the glow of our Christmas lights, the real astonishment of Christmas began to unfold within me: 2,000 years ago, God became human! On the first Christmas, the Creator of the universe entered our lives, not by making things perfect, but by becoming one of us. The only plan that didn’t go awry was the only plan that counted: God entered our hurting world.

A wave of gratitude and peace swept over me as I saw Christmas in a new way. God can break into our lives anywhere, anytime, in spite of obstacles. They may include being as homeless as the infant Jesus, as poor as Mary and Joseph, as separated from loved ones as they were in Bethlehem. No matter. The perfect Christmas — then and now — is one in which Christ enters into our oh-so-real lives.

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Northwest Catholic - December 2018