In which I celebrate the imperfect Christmas

We don’t have a “perfect” Christmas.

We’re the last family on our street with old-fashioned coloured Christmas lights. I can’t seem to embrace the ubiquitous white lights: I know they look more clean and professional and designer-ish, but I grew up with coloured lights, and so I string coloured lights every year. Besides, they match our decorations, there isn’t anything elegant about this crew.

Not a single one of our ornaments matches another ornament. When Brian and I were a young married couple, no kids, we used to buy them when we travelled (that feels like another life…). So we hang a glass angel from Poland, a kitschy mariachi couple from San Antonio, Santa in swim trunks from Florida, delicate balls from Beijing. And, because that was such a short season of our life, we have covered the rest of our tree with salt-dough homemade ornaments, dripping with glue and glitter, plus a clearance box from Walmart in candy stripe primary colours. They’re the same ornaments we have every year, and already the tinies unwrap them with squeals of recognition.

We have a cheap angel at the top: her face broke in half the year we moved home to Canada, and we mended her with super glue. Joseph stuck her on the top of the tree crooked this year. In between the mismatched and homemade ornaments, we swing gaudy plastic garland, I picked the pearly sheen-y one because it reflects the coloured lights bee-yew-ti-fully.

We set the tree up today, and we hollered at the kids, and we laughed, and we danced, and we swatted the baby away from the branches, I’m still sweeping needles.

We listened to O Holy Night and I told every one it was my favourite Christmas song, but I danced the craziest at All I Want For Christmas Is You, because, honestly, that is kind of also my favourite. I dug out the Advent devotionals and placed them right beside How the Grinch Stole Christmas in the Christmas book basket because that’s how it is around here.

I’m not retro in a cool hipster kind of way, I’m more retro in the dorky-family-Christmas wanna-be-Griswold eye-roll sort of way. Today, I went to Home Depot to scope out a sale on lighted reindeer for the front yard, and very nearly bought the hockey-playing polar bear instead (Brian talked me out of both, the old Grinch).

All of my Christmas recipes are the same ones that my mother makes, and those the same ones that both of my own Grannies made before us. I stick fake maraschino cherries onto the tops of my whipped shortbread, and my Anne swears they’re her favourite cookie, she waits all year-long for them.

Sometimes it’s easy to be lured into the Pinterest Christmas, the myth of the perfect, designer, foodie, cool Christmas. The idea behind it seems to be that, if we decorate it beautifully, it will be beautiful, and somehow our surroundings are the best indicator for our inner peace and joy, our best defense against the reality of our own imperfections at Christmas.

So I feel strangely, unreasonably obstinate about white lights and matchy-glass ornaments. I make homemade pies and boy, do they look homemade, and sometimes I make homemade gifts (boy, do they look homemade), and sometimes I yell at my tinies when they aren’t being merry and bright enough.

This year, instead of kicking rocks, paging through magazines, I’m embracing it, loving it, poking my candy cane stick in the ground like a flag-planting, a declaration: I will have an imperfect Christmas, and I’ll embrace all of it from the Rankin Bass Christmas specials to the way that I cry through the entire Christmas Eve candlelight service.

I’m celebrating my imperfect Christmas. Maybe no one wants to Pin it or sponsor it, maybe Martha would weep in her Cape Cod cottage over it, but I’ll be one of the few and the proud.

I’ll be the last one stringing coloured lights and crappy garland, I’ll be the last one making family recipes instead of Food network approved fare, I’ll be the last one hanging kindergarten ornaments, and I’ll save my homemade presents from the tinies in the little box I call My Glory Box because this is my crown.

Tonight, we watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and I worked on my Christmas letter. I’m sitting here now, in the glow of a thousand coloured mini-lights, and I love my imperfect Christmas and my imperfect family so much.

All is, somehow, mysteriously, calm and bright.


  • Annie Barnett

    I love you for writing this, Sarah. You’ve got a glory box and you’re reminding the lot of us that we can, too. Love, love, love.

  • Laura_InTheBackyard

    LOVE this. Every year, i start to slip dangerously close to the delusion that I really want a Pinterest-perfect Christmas. But I don’t want that Christmas. I want it the way we do it. Which means those colored lights that Mark likes, that I used to be embarrassed about until I had a talk with myself about how they remind my husband of his happy childhood Christmas memories, and how that’s more than a good enough reason to string them joyfully. Or the patchy ornament-placement done by a 7-year-old and 5-year-old. I’d take those things over flawless beauty any old day!

  • Nancy Huggett

    The only real problem is that the salt dough ornaments crumble after 18 years! And then you cry buckets as you unwrap the crumble and think why-oh-shy didn’t I shellac them or something (even tho shellac is poison, so okay, maybe Aleene’s tacky glue watered down would work). I’m just sayin’ …. you might want to think of that now! Thanks for this! Our Christmas traditions started way before Pinterest and just as Martha was building her empire. So for that I am grateful!

  • CatherineTrieschmann

    “…in the little box I call My Glory Box because this is my crown.” Really diggin’ on this one little line. Blessings to you & all your tinsel.

  • Jenn

    I’m with ya sister…it’s homemade and retro around here too. Travel ornaments and kindergarten crafts adorn our tree as well. No matchy, matchy. :)

  • Abbie

    You are not alone at all! We are rocking our multi-colored lights along with silver icicle/tinsel and miss matched ornaments! 😉

  • Sue Peterson

    Just wanted to say thanks…makes me feel so much better about entering the Christmas season! I always have a vision of what the month of December will be and things always go awry…this year, I will embrace the awry! :)

  • Charity Jill Erickson

    Oh my. Whipped shortbread? Googling: Is that just butter, flour, & confectioners sugar w/ cherries? They look like something my Gram used to make! I tried your banana bread recipe awhile back and it was fantastic.

  • dukeslee

    Oh my word. We’re singing out of the same hymnal. This week, I was all like–

    “Hark!” The ceramic angels sing, “Glory to the crocheted King!”

    I love multi-colored lights and cheesy ornaments and decking the halls with boughs of kitsch. A very, very merry (and imperfect) Christmas to you…

    • Kristen O’Neill Strong

      Ohmahword, Jennifer, as if I couldn’t love you more. This comment cracked me up!

  • Kristen O’Neill Strong

    Oh my, yes. Here’s to a perfectly imperfect calm and bright Christmas. You are golden, Sarah!

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely beautiful.

  • Erika

    are we the same person? because this is ME!!!!!!!!!!!!! love it!

  • Linda Stoll

    please save every . single . ornament . your . tinies . make! No matter how garish or schlocky, these are the ones that will become more priceless and precious to you as the years go by. watching my grandchildren hang the ones that their own mamas made is a true Christmas joy.
    forget matchy-matchy.

    {smiling at Martha weeping in her Cape Cod cottage …}

  • Jimmie lee

    Sounds like Christmas to me :)

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  • KathleenBasi

    My husband prefers white lights for the outdoors, and although I’m with you on the colors I’ve made peace with it. Not for inside, however. Color is the way to go. What I *am* strangely obstinate about is the separation of Advent from Christmas, and celebrating Christmas for its appropriate length: i.e. Dec. 25 to Jan. 6th. I can’t stand how it’s all over on 12/26, how the shopping craze has made everyone so sick of the subject by then that they pretend it never existed, when really, the celebration’s just getting started. Which is not to say that we don’t allow fun, Christmasy stuff to happen during Advent…there’s no getting around it. It would make life poorer to try. But I sure wish the culture would pursue a healthier balance. Lacking that I just have to try to keep that balance in our own household.

  • Tara_pohlkottepress

    no darlin’ – you are not the last one. I let my homemade decoration freak flag fly. It is made out of construction paper links counting down the days and stops at my avon hanging calendar that you move the mouse from pocket to pocket that i’ve had since i was six and couldn’t imagine christmas without. My husband says that colored lights are “clown lights” so the year we were married we compromised that every other year we alternate between colored and white. but the kids and I are joining forces this year to demand colored again this year… can’t break childhood dreams you know :) . I love your christmas ways and want you to know that your garland might be hung much like mine is, half cocked, half bare, but oh, full of love :)

  • pastordt

    OH, me, too! (Except I do use white lights on the tree) Colored lights outside – in the days when we didn’t fear death by bleeding from falling off a ladder (we’re both on blood thinners and ladders are now forbidden). I hung my children’s early Christmas works of art on one whole wall of our entry for years – until they became brittle with age – and I just gave what I had left back to them (except for a piece or two I could nor bear to part with). I buy an ornament on every family vacation, I’ve bought small sets of ornaments on sale at all kinds of places and now have so many that I cannot use them all. This will be Christmas number 47, after all, so there is much more stuff. MUCH more. I need to sift and sort and dump and give away – and I can hardly bear it. Because we always had imperfect perfect Christmases and I miss them. I never did go for the aqua and lavender on white Xmas tree crapola – preferring my own primary color Christmas of red and green above all other possible variations. Martha Schmartha, honey. Make your own kind of memories and traditions. And keep all the lovely Christmas stories in one basket – because they all help point us to the central one. Yes, they do. Love you – enjoy the month, be well.

  • Anna White

    Same two favorite Christmas songs here! We put on elf, and whatever can be decorated in the time it takes that movie to play is what gets decorated. Whatever is left over goes back in the box. Our tree was beautiful for one night. Then all the lights turned off for reasons unknown. I don’t even care. I throw my arms wide open, for imperfection and for lovely shiny moments both. All is welcome here.

  • Handsfull

    My first Christmas was when I was 23, so I have no childhood memories to keep alive, but I love Christmas fiercely and have loved making my own family traditions. We have no matching ornaments, we always have a real tree that we choose on the first weekend in December (that’s next weekend!) and keep up until the needles go yellow and fall off usually halfway through January. One of our traditions is to go shopping for Christmas decorations AFTER Christmas (they’re halfprice then), and as the Christmas tree stays up for another couple of weeks, the new decorations get enjoyed (almost) as much as the old ones. Each child is allowed to pick one new ornament to buy each year. And although I try to steer them away from the screamingly gaudy ones, we do have an increasingly ‘interesting’ selection hanging on the tree each year. I like the fact that our Christmas traditions are our own, and that no one else will have a tree that looks like ours. Possibly no one else would want to have a tree that looks like ours, but that’s beside the point. Lol!

  • Michelle Acker Perez

    Sarah, I love this….my husband and I just celebrated our first year of marriage are trying to make new traditions. As we navigate cross-cultural marriage and life in another country I’ve had to realize that our Christmas traditions will just look different. And that’s ok. Thanks for such a good reminder. PS. My parents have always used mixed and matched xmas ornaments. I didn’t even know people bought colored coordinated balls until I went to my college roommates family xmas party 10 years ago.

  • Rev-o-lution

    My parents separated when I was 13 (and later divorced) and one of the many things they fought over was who got the Christmas ornaments, and so they, like many other things from our childhood, were lost, including all of our ornaments we had and made as children. When my husband and I first were dating (we are both clergy) we decided we would not get each other Christmas presents, but only an ornament, a tradition now going on 9 years. When our son was born, we also bought him a new ornament every year. We received some other ornaments as gifts, but some of the most meaningful are my husband’s ornaments from his childhood that his mother gave him when he moved out of the house. Christmas is perfect when you do things your own way and don’t worry about others. I love it. Thank you for this!

  • Helen

    there’s a push away from coloured lights? Wow. I hadn’t noticed. I will string coloured lights forever because they’re better. There, I said it.
    Last year i hosted christmas for my whole family for the first time as an adult. I’ve managed to not ever do it – until last year and without children, christmas has always fallen a little flat in my house. I tried hard to breathe into it some kind of perfection, as you describe, but at the last minute we ended up with four extra small children and well, the whole thing became chaotic – in a wonderful way – but not my picture perfect way I’d intended. I learned a lot from that.

  • dawn

    Yes! Colored lights and mismatched ornaments all the way! Handmade, homespun, and meaningful beats Pinterest perfection every time for me. Marthas holiday stuff feels hollow and cold to me.

  • Stacy

    Love this, Sarah. We don’t have a lot of homemade ornaments from our kids yet. We do have handmade ornaments from hubby’s sweet Granny. Some of them are falling apart but we hang them ever so gently each year. She passed long before our boys met her. My oldest thinks she must have been “pretty awesome”. She was, I tell him.

  • Emily Wierenga

    oh how i stinking love you.

  • Juanita Dueck

    *sigh* Isn’t it great? The mis-matched, tinsel-laden, cheesy ornament look? I love it. It reminds me of grandparents and “home”. I love my shortbread with cherries on top and what would Christmas be without the Griswolds AND the Grinch?? I mean really….this is just Heaven on earth. 😉

  • Beth Ricci

    I can’t stop thinking about this post. I read it when you published it, but had to come back and leave a comment. Love, love, LOVE these words.

    (sitting here in front of my crooked tree with ornaments heavily concentrated at 2 & 4-yr-old height, with mess and crafting supplies everywhere, no dinner plans, and peace in my soul).

  • Jessica Stock

    I feel like you took a picture of our Christmas tree! I wish we were next door neighbors and could light up a big chunk of the block with gaudy colored lights. Love this, as always.

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  • Anita Mathias

    Beautiful! Love it!

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  • onebluestocking

    Matching ornaments look like a department store display, not a family Christmas tree. Every tree should have some ornaments from different generations, and some homemade ones! I grew up the only house with white lights in the 70’s, and always envied everyone else’s fun, colorful ones, so now that I have kids it’s all colored lights and tacky stuff in the yard. Christmas is about what is fun for kids, not what is in style or matches your decorating. Kids don’t care about “tasteful” and Christmas should be what they love! And keep those family recipes alive! The holidays are the perfect time to remember the familiar comfort foods your mother or grandmother made. Nothing in your article sounds “imperfect” to me.

  • onebluestocking

    I stubbornly keep our Christmas decorations up and alight until Epiphany every year, even though our neighbors take everything down right away. The trouble is that with stores stocking Christmas displays in September and piping in holiday music by November, everyone is tired of it long before the 12 days are over. Not to mention people who put up their trees before Thanksgiving.