We Wish You a Messy Christmas!

Could the pressure to have a “Merry” Christmas be the very thing that undermines the glory of the holiday? What if real joy and peace can only be found in the embrace of a “Messy” Christmas this season…

Merry Christmas

Photo Credit: Nicola Albertini (Creative Commons)

My son is five years old. He attends pre-school, and we recently went through the annual school picture ritual. When we received the samples from the photography company, they offered a peculiar service: you could circle any imperfection in your child’s picture, label it, and they would airbrush it out in the final prints. Suggestions included: stray hair, scars, blemishes, and clothing stains.

My wife and I toyed with the idea of circling his entire head and labeling it “Face,” just to see what they would do.

A Perfect(ly Miserable) Holiday

It sounds absurd, but this is what we do to Christmas, isn’t it?

We think we must perfect it.

We go to enormous lengths to get just the right presents and then we wrap them in extravagant paper that will immediately be torn to shreds. We decorate homes and trees and insist on having every light in its proper place. We slave over meals and fret if the turkey is a little dry. We take twenty family photos until we get one where everyone is smiling just right—never mind that the family hasn’t looked that perfect all year and won’t again.

We beautify everything.

But then real life crashes into all of our effort and perfectionism. No matter how hard we try, we still feel lonely and sad, the kids still fight, work is still stressful, and our extended family still bickers and argues. As it turns out, life doesn’t go on vacation during the holiday season. But we frantically try to put a pretty facade on it, and then we wonder why the season is chaotic and stressful.

The chains of perfectionism keep us enslaved to the holiday.

Maybe if we want to have a truly merry Christmas, we have to be okay with it being incredibly messy. In fact, I wonder if the whole point of Christmas is to celebrate the mess of life. To embrace it and to be embraced by it. To know that we are messy but swimming in grace.

A Messy Celebrant 

After all, regardless of religious belief, if we participate in the Christmas season, we are in some way participating in a celebration that began with the birth of a King. A messy King. Conceived by a woman deemed dishonorable by her culture. Born to a poor family from a marginal rural town. Birthed in a dark and smelly barn. Quickly exiled to a foreign land.  Forgotten by his parents at a temple. Condemned by authority as a glutton and a drunkard and a blasphemer. Executed all sweaty and bloody and alone on his culture’s ultimate symbol of shame—a cross. A King, but a messy one.

Perhaps the message of Christmas—the message we all need to take deeply into our hearts—is that you can be messy and glorious all at the same time.

Embracing The Mess

Several weeks ago, the same five-year-old son was in a downward spiral. Absolutely plummeting. If he could find something he was forbidden to do, he would do it like it was his job. My wife and I, two clinical psychologists, were executing our parenting with textbook precision.

The Supernanny would have been out of a job.

But no matter how many times we responded calmly with consequences and rewards, my hurting, angry boy upped the ante.

To the sound of toys pelting the inside of his bedroom door, I threw up my hands in exasperation and pleaded to my wife, “You’re the child psychologist, what does he need?” She looked at me and gently said, “Probably a hug.”

A hug? Hug all that mess? Doesn’t that just reinforce the behaviors? To give him something good for acting so badly, won’t that just encourage more defiance?

I went in to his room and he looked at me, all anger and suspicion and hardness. Until I held out my arms and he fell into them sobbing, all soft and crumpled. My son knew he was behaving badly. He didn’t need more consequences to convince him of that. What he needed to know was that in his mess, he is beloved and held in an accepting embrace.

Trading Merry For Messy

We all need that, don’t we? And maybe, just maybe, Christmas is the season to fall into that embrace. To know that we are messy and beloved all at the same time. To know that our imperfections don’t detract one iota from our worthiness. To know that the chains of holiday perfection cannot withstand a grace-full embrace.

Maybe if we can sincerely wish each other a Messy Christmas, the merry part will take care of itself.

Question: Are there holiday habits of perfection that you have ditched? What do you do to embrace the messiness of the holiday? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Raj Kushal

    I start to read your post & break into laughter with every line & realise all we need as a gist would be a smile. We in India have our own festival of holi which is all about drenching each other in color, water & paint but end by washing the kids with hosepipes lest they bring the mess into the home. One speck of color or a drop of water & the kids are cursed upon bringing the merriment to an abrupt end.
    I sometimes think how is it that you profess the mess you are trained to end in our lives. Wish you & ur family a messy X-mas & a smile

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hey Raj, Replied to this over on the Facebook page. Messy Festival of Holi to you too!

  • Renee O.

    Excellent! Real and honest. Thanks for this insight to ponder on this Holiday season. Miss you guys!

    • drkellyflanagan

      We miss you all, too, Renee! This time of year will always bring up memories of some of our gift exchanges. :)

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    I love the phrase “Life doesn’t go on vacation during the holiday season.” It is so true. And for people who have loved ones struggling with mental illness and addictions it almost feels like the Mucinex creatures have taken over the festivities. Releasing the expectation of what it “should” be has helped a lot. For me the struggle is how to minimize the chaotic fall out from holiday.induced crises.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Indeed, leaving the weeks after the holidays relatively unscheduled in order to process and debrief is probably a good idea!

  • Dave Wright

    Kelly, you did it again. Right on the money. Have a very Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You too, Dave!

  • Susabella

    Messy Christmas, Kelly! Loved that you went in and hugged your son. How beautiful.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Messy Christmas, Susabella!

  • Kim

    I. LOVE. THIS. “Messy Christmas!” is going to be my mantra this year. I love how much room that leaves for grace and honesty and acceptance.

    And you *know* I love the “hug” story :) that is awesome :)

  • Catharine Phillips

    I remember the Christmas when my son was five (now 25) and he wanted a SYSTEM. The SYSTEM was not in the budget and the five year old was informed.Still he was certain the SYSTEM would arrive. My soon to be husband came from a family where his father stood with a videocamera and taped everything. My beloved taped every second of my son*s disappointment with every gift he opened. We have never viewed the tape. Talk about messy. Oh… and video cameras have not been part of the celebrations since.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, if you videotape Christmas morning you better at least have a good editing program!

  • kaleighak

    so, i had to read this several times to really get it. first i read it and identified with the parent of the child that seems to make it their job to defy and disobey. i rolled my eyes and said to myself “i hear you on that one!” i too have opened the dented door to that angry child and had her fall into me. me finally realizing that her behavior was not “attention getting” but soul searching. “would mom still love me if…”

    and i got the part about the messy king too. that does sound messy.

    and then (maybe i’m just slow :) i put it all together. i don’t go around acting out to get attention. but sometimes, i realized, that in my own personal mess, i shut the door and pelt it with toys, not realizing that i just need to fall into my own safe embrace.

    thanks.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That last image is beautiful. I like the idea of all of it playing out internally. Both the mess and the embrace. :)

  • Jason Garo

    I go home, spend Christmas with extended family, realize that they are completely imperfect, and love the fact that they are as screwed up as I am. No matter how much we strive for perfection, we will ALWAYS fail. So why try to do it for a day that has nothing to do with perfection, but rather, it is a day of humility. It is a day that we must humble ourselves to love one another enough to understand. To understand that getting along doesn’t mean “I want you to be the perfect version of you”, instead, understanding means to love each others imperfections. The Tower of Piza has been seen by millions since it began leaning. People don’t go to see how perfect and symetrical the columns are, they go to see the lean. The imperfect lean that has been embraced by all that go see. We are all “leaning” in some way or fashion, it took me many years to realize this, and I’m still in the process of perfecting the understanding of imperfections ;) And if this all fails, I just booze it up with love ones and talk about the good times (default move) ;)

    • drkellyflanagan

      “They go to see the lean.” I love it! Looking forward to being imperfect with you in a few weeks!

  • Jennifer Newell

    In someways I learned about a messy Christmas years ago. I was working like crazy on a project and still trying to put together the perfect Christmas for my immediate family and do the Christmas cards. I was at the end of my rope and my husband said to me, so what is the worst thing that would happen if you did not send out Christmas cards. So that year I did not get around to sending out cards. The next year I did get the cards out early. But that one christmas the world did not come to an end and although at first I felt like I had failed, the truth was it eliminated stress of perfection I put on myself. The same is true at our house on the decorations. There are years that we put up all the lights, little houses on the mantel, the lighted garland downstairs and lights and wreaths decorated on the out side as well. But when life gets a little messy we just put up the trees and it is still christmas even if we dont have all the decorations up. So i think when you let go of the perfect christmas and you go with the best christmas with all you have on your plate, somehow it just is enough to be together. Christmas morning will come and the kids will be excited and we will open the few presents from Santa and then when we are done we will stop and have coffee and cinnamon rolls. Then we open the presents from mom and dad. Oh yeah, the best stuff comes from mom and dad. I always had a hard time with Santa getting all the credit so for us he brings a few presents to the kids and the rest is from their mom and dad.
    I think where i still struggle with perfection or the desire for perfection is with the extended family. I think we dont see each other that often any more and we want that time to go smoothly and with little or no conflict. But the truth is you cant put 20 plus people together in one house and expect their to be no conflicts, tears, or disappointments. It still amazes me that we step foot into the house and instantly we are back to when we were kids.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Totally agree! Why should Santa get credit for all the good stuff. : ) And your last comment: “It still amazes me that we step foot into the house and instantly we are back to when we were kids” anticipates the next Friday post!

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  • Vanessa Portaro

    i know this is LOOONG overdue but i’m new to this community and the image that came to my mind when i read just the title of this entry was my home. i have a daughter with several disabilities including autism. for years i succumbed to the traditions set by my family and inflicted noise, ceremony, more noise, weird food and yet more noise on my poor little girl. a few years ago i made a huge change and started my own tradition. we stayed home. it was very traumatic – for everyone else. however, if my family wanted to visit, they were welcomed – a few at a time. my daughter could stay in her familiar environment with boundaries that prevents overstimulation and the diabolical consequences of it. we still celebrate but in a more relaxed and ‘messy’ way…. and i love it!!! my family have adapted and now respect my decision and celebrate with us. a few at a time.
    two years ago i had a friend home from the usa for a short visit to see his children. their schedule was such that we could only see them on christmas eve. the cooking was not done yet. my friend despaired. so i got out the ham, ran to the store and made the best christmas sub sandwiches EVER (according to the kids) and we had a wonderful time and created memories we still talk about – very messy… i love how the messy times create the best memories…. the ones we talk about with a twinkle in our eyes.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Welcome to our little corner of the Internet, Vanessa! So glad you found us and thanks for jumping in! I love your Christmas story. It takes a lot of courage to change the traditions of an entire extended family; your daughter is lucky to have you! Blessings to you both!