We're trying to get into the spirit of the season, but we keep making the mistake of planning idyllic experiences, which, of course, are ruining the coming of Christmas.
Case in point: trimming the tree.
For years, I've tried to eliminate all the potential reasons why tree-trimming could become — how to put this? — an afternoon in the fires of hell.
Once, when our children were little, we created a fantasy day in which we planned to trudge out to the local Christmas tree farm, choose a majestic fir or spruce or pine (who can tell, really?) and drive home with the perfect Christmas tree tied to the roof of our family van, all the while singing carols in unison (or would harmony be more ideal?).
Don't be shocked, but it didn't turn out that way.
If I recall correctly, the temperature was something like 15 degrees. I had wrapped the children in so many layers that they literally were unable to move their arms and legs, except that I inexplicably had put them all in a single layer of flimsy cotton socks inside their inadequate snow boots, made of a substance not found in nature and unequal to the task of warming their feet.
About seven seconds after we got out of the van and walked (or waddled, as the case may be) toward the wagon that would drop us in the forest of available trees, one of the children claimed to be freezing. From that moment on, our idyllic afternoon on the tree farm deteriorated into an exercise in frozen futility.
"I'm cold," one child griped.
"At least you have the good mittens. My hands are frozen," another chimed in.
The complaining escalated.
"You always get the good mittens."
"That's because you lost the other mittens."
Then, one of the children said the wrong thing.
"Why is this taking so long?"
Of course, it was taking so long because my husband was in search of the one and only tree in the acres of evergreens with a straight tree trunk. For reasons beyond my comprehension, he operated under the misconception that there really is such a thing as a tree with a straight trunk.
Right about this time, I became concerned that the baby was at risk for hypothermia. So I did what all wives do when we know we're running out of time and the demands of motherhood are about to collide head-on with the responsibilities of being a good spouse.
I started to flatter the heck out of my husband's taste in Christmas trees.
"Honey, you're right; that clearly is the tree that Joseph himself would have chosen had he not been so busy finding a stable for Mary. It's a winner."
"Are you sure?"
He tested my sincerity.
"Can we go now?" asked a chilled cherub.
"Absolutely. It's the perfect tree."
You know what happened next because it has happened to you or someone you know. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, you probably have experienced the equivalent in furniture assembly or wallpapering.
We got home, and Jim cut the bottom so the tree would drink water from the tree stand (assuming we remembered to refill the stand with water). This was standard operating procedure, after all.
But cutting the bottom caused it to list to one side, so, naturally, he cut it a little more. And a little more. And more still.
Eventually, we stood in the family room next to a 3-foot Christmas bush that barely reached our elbows.
If memory serves, Jim and I had an argument, I fed the children a can of soup and some watery hot cocoa, and then he put the little ones to bed with a promise to trim the tree the next day, while I went out and got a professionally cut tree from the temporary tree vendor on the vacant lot near the gas station.
Tears. Apologies. Forgiveness. Merry Christmas.
A few years later, when the clearance sales started on the 26th of December, I bought a 6-foot artificial blue spruce, put it in the storage room and smugly planned the perfect family tree-trimming experience for the following year. At least I eliminated the potential for sap stains and pine needles clogging the vacuum cleaner.
Oddly, the six of us still believe tree trimming is an idyllic family experience despite annual tensions and conflict.
This year was no exception. When we pulled out our trusty artificial tree, "someone" had tangled the lights so inextricably into the boughs of plastic and wire that the plug was lost. We had to pull off all four strands of lights and start over. (My husband always says "someone did it" in front of the children rather than just accuse me outright.)
While two of us wrestled with the lights, the rest unwrapped, and then broke, several glass Santas, and Katie told Amy that the light-bulb ornament she had made for me last year was stupid, despite my reassuring Amy how much I treasured her handiwork.
Tears. Apologies. Forgiveness. Merry Christmas.
For whatever reason, our collective imaginations still harbor a fantasy of family togetherness that's possible only in the script of a Frank Capra movie.
Then again, every year somehow is more idyllic than the last, even if we're writing the script ourselves.