Unexpected Gifts: letting go of perfection and embracing reality

perfection; christmas; gifts; stress; presents; letting go; embracing; reality;

It’s a winter wonderland outside my window today. A perfect Christmas-card morning. Blankets of white and snow crystals catch the moonlight and shimmer like diamonds across the lawn.

For a brief moment, in the midst of all the cozy morning things—a mug of steaming coffee, journaling in a quiet house—I gaze at the neighbour’s Christmas lights still twinkling in the dark. My heart swells.

I haven’t always felt this way or appreciated these moments. You see, winter, the Christmas season, December… isn’t my best time of year. But you know that; this isn’t the first time I’ve said it, it likely won’t be the last.

The reality is that Christmas, the occasion of God’s greatest gift to humanity and all things peace and joy, just stresses me out. As soon as December hits, I start to come undone.

If I’m being honest, the beast awakens when the decorations hit retail shelves mid-October. (This year, it started in September!) I can feel the panic rising as I’m suddenly reminded of the myriad things I need to do between now and the 25th of December.

Each year I convince myself that this is the year I’m going to do less, I’m going to do better. But, by December I am utterly overwhelmed with everything on my plate for the coming holiday season, despite my yearly battle cry to “Simplify, simplify!”

Even good things can quickly become overwhelming. Filling Shoeboxes, socks for the homeless, community hampers, food bank donations… It’s all too much.

And true to form, every December 26 I collapse in a puddle and vow that next year will be different. But for many years, it wasn’t. And I grew to dread Christmas. Hate Christmas, in fact. Who does that?

Of course, I didn’t hate Christmas. But I hated what it had become. I hated what I had made it.

In my attempt to create a magical Martha Stewart holiday for everyone around me, I’d completely lost the point. Every December, instead of sharing in the miracle of advent, I was thoroughly empty. Broken, spilled out and—inevitably—disappointed, because I perpetually failed to meet my own unreasonable expectations.

Every December, instead of sharing in the miracle of advent,
I was thoroughly empty. Broken, spilled out and—inevitably—disappointed,
because I perpetually failed to meet my own unreasonable expectations.

It was Christmas 2014 that God began the work of changing that for me in the most unexpected way. Just as the annual retail assault was beginning, I received a cancer diagnosis.

What should have been devastating news was just the gift I needed to begin the process of re-setting my priorities. Years of bitterness and complaining yielded to something new.

It was that year that I had to choose what our Christmas was anchored on and what I wanted my family to take away from the holiday. Beginning that year, my legacy would not be one of a frazzled, grumpy, overwhelmed mom and wife!

Isn’t that how God works? Through the unexpected?

  • He chose a young virgin to bear his earthly son. 
  • He chose to reveal his glorious coming to shepherds in the country, not the capital.
  • The long-awaited king made his debut in a stable, not a palace.
  • He came with a whimper, not a bang.

It looked nothing like how we would choose to celebrate the coming of a king. It was definitely not how Martha Stewart would have done it.

Though it’s not a typical Christmas story, each December I am reminded of another Martha, who also fussed with unnecessary details. In Luke 10:40 (NIV) it says But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made…” She obviously had some expectations about what hosting Jesus looked like.

On the heels of my diagnosis, God showed me that all my expectations of what Christmas is supposed to look like were just that, mine. Not His. And for the first time in many years, I was able to let go of them…. Mostly. 

Jesus chastised Martha too, in his loving but firm way. “’Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one…’”(Luke 10:41,42a NIV)

I will admit to you that each Christmas I still battle against the urge to get carried away. I need reminding that few things are needed—indeed, only one.

But, every year I’m better at recognizing my limitations and saying No when needed.

In clearing away the busy and the clutter, I’ve created space to receive God’s greatest gift. Jesus.

So, how does one go about finding the balance between enjoying the beauty of the season–because there is so much to love about Christmas–and keeping expectations realistic?

Here’s three little strategies I’ve implemented, with varying degrees of success, over the past few years. Maybe there’s something here that will resonate with you…

Forget perfection.

One of the reasons I get sucked into all the Christmas trappings is because I’m actually a hopeless romantic. (My husband can vouch for me here.) I feel like the marketing professionals of the world have a big bullseye on me when they talk about their ‘target audience.’ I’m a sucker for perfectly wrapped packages and designer trees, snow crystals glittering on evergreen in the moonlight, candlelight and Silent Night. All of it. Watch me swoon.

But, as much as I dream about the notion of a perfect Christmas, the reality is almost always miles away from my fantasies, and reconciling the two is still a challenge.

  • To help me better manage my own expectations, I try to steer clear of things that put pretty, glittery baubles right in my face. I cancelled a subscription to a home design magazine because I couldn’t handle the Christmas photo spreads, constantly comparing its glossy pages to my scraggly reality.
  • I avoid retail environments (a.k.a. the MALL) and flyers as much as possible, which, starting November 1, is tricky. (Case in point: you can read about my small problem with Target here.) That doesn’t mean I forgo shopping altogether, but I’m more strategic about it the closer we get to the holidays.

Embrace reality.

  • Our Christmas tree is the most far-from-designer thing you’ve ever seen. We haven’t bought into colour schemes or matchy-matchy ornaments. Instead, it is full of baubles that bring the sentimental to our season. Each girl has her own box of decorations, ranging from priceless, handmade works of art created in pre-school and kindergarten, to gifts from friends and grandma–who gives them each an ornament every Christmas. We schedule tree-decorating day on the calendar and it’s sacred. Our trees will never make the cover of a magazine, but Charlie Brown would be proud. And it’s ok.
  • The whole ‘making a list and checking it twice’ thing is a part of Christmas I can get into. Santa is my kind of guy! There’s nothing like a good list to light up this girl.But in years past, my lists were multi-page, unwieldy things that tended to leave me more overwhelmed than anything. And, I’m not the most disciplined person ever, so making a list is one thing, sticking to it is quite another. Over the past few years though, I’ve pared down my Christmas ‘to-do’ list considerably. And now (for the most part) I stick to it. The great thing about sticking to a list is that the benefit is two-fold:
    1. Instead of wandering through the malls and being inundated with ideas that distract me from my original intent, I know exactly what I want and usually where to get it. I can either shop online or be really focused when I am at the mall.2. Sticking to the list also helps me stick to a budget because I’m not panic shopping or succumbing to the endless temptation to add on to my list or change my mind.

Focus on priorities.

I think the thing I grieved the most each year was the loss of the spiritual heritage that Christmas embodies. I grew up in the Christian tradition, and even though we still attend Christmas services each year, by the 24th and 25th of December, I was physically and emotionally spent and unable to appreciate the whole reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.

Ultimately, Christmas isn’t about slowing down long enough to attend a service. It isn’t about unwrapping toys and gifts and picture perfect decorations. It’s about unwrapping God’s gift to humanity in the form of a little babe, humbly born, sent to save humanity.

It is undoubtedly a celebration that deserves our time and attention. But the advent of Christ’s birth is so much more to us than the opportunity to bake cookies and exchange gifts. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the most sacrificial gift given to us and all that means.

“But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said.
“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.
The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem,
the city of David!”

~Luke 2:10-11

Last January, I bought Ann Voskamp’s book, The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the full love story of Christmas. I’ve dusted it off and am ready to implicate my family in slowing down this advent season. The book contains 24 readings and reflections, leading the reader from the beginning of Jesus’ lineage through the coming of Christ. A journey towards Christmas that puts the focus back on Christ.

Giving the gift of experiences, not things?

Making memories, not contributing to clutter?

Looking outward and serving or volunteering at organizations which meet the needs of those less fortunate?

How do you slow down and embrace all that the Christmas season has to offer? 

Next week, I’ll be posting the first in a little advent series; it’s something I’m doing to help me keep my eyes on the reason we celebrate in the weeks leading up to Christmas. If you are looking for a little HOPE, then you won’t want to miss it.

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Thanks for visiting,

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