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…
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.