On December first, I said a prayer.

It wasn’t a prayer for the homeless or the hungry or PeaceOnEarthGoodwillToMen.  It was a prayer for me, and only me.

Selfish, I know, but I needed it.  And so I said it.

I prayed that, this year, I would enjoy Christmas before 6 pm on December twenty-fifth, which is about the time the colossal tasks of shopping, wrapping, mailing, cooking, cleaning, and fibbing (“I love it!”) are over and I finally get to sit on the couch, open up whatever great book my dad got me, and relax.

This lasts approximately three hours.

I then will myself to get up off the couch and at least “soak some pans,” thus commencing the colossal task of Cleaning Christmas Up.  This lasts approximately four weeks.

I’ve spent too many years saying “I love Christmas” when what I’m really saying is “I love December twenty-sixth.”  (January twenty-sixth, actually, according to my Christmas Cleanup Calendar.)  And call me hopeful, but shouldn’t the warmth and cheer of this good season envelop me during, well, this good season, and not just the days following it?  Shouldn’t I rejoice in Christmas, and not just the fact that it’s (finally) over?

I’m not a Scrooge.  I do love the glow of the season, but the older I get, it seems that rather than basking in it, I’m squinting at it from afar.  And what I’m really basking is the constant buzz in the back of my mind, screaming at me to:

  • Find personal and meaningfulgifts for: the kids, the hub, the parents, the in-laws, the nieces, the nephews, the brothers, the sisters, the brother in-laws, the sister-in-laws, the teachers, the piano/guitar/violin instructors (no wait, the violin instructor’s Jehovah’s Witness–score), the church friends, the neighbor friends, the groomer, and the dog.
  • Pull ten large red tubs down from high, high shelf in the garage (note to self:  do not attempt to do this by standing on the garbage dumpsters for support.  Things didn’t turn out well for you last year.)
  • Haul dusty tubs into living room and watch as the kids dive in. Set up tree, hang stockings, an spend the next four days trying to remember where everything in those freaking red tubs is supposed to be displayed on your walls.
  • Christmas Cards!  Schedule family pictures; shop for outfits for each family member; take family pictures, order family pictures (no one will notice how fat you look, just order them already), import family pictures into specialized online greeting card service that will outshine last year’s (and hopefully, your neighbor’s) attempt, order cards, address and stamp cards; where applicable, sign each card individually, with a personal and meaningful note.
  • Plan and carry out personal and meaningful family traditions which may include, but are not limited to:  making thoughtful homemade cards and gifts, making and delivering treats baked with love, leading the children in a personal and meaningful Christmas service project (preferably drawn out over two weeks with multiple, anonymous, creative gifts driven and dropped off, by you, right at bedtime), providing said children with darling advent calendar filled with sweet surprises for each day of the month, taking said children Christmas caroling, attending The Nutcracker as a family ($25 a ticket–ouch!), leading said children in purchasing and donating food and gifts to local charities, attending and helping with various church dinners and parties, leading said children in a “Bethlehem Dinner” and Nativity Play on Christmas Eve (costumes, please), and a traditional Scandinavian breakfast on Christmas morning (deviled eggs, please), in which you will surely burn the deep-fried rosette pastries, as you burn them every year.
  • Plan and purchase food and ingredients for Special Christmas Baking, Special Christmas Snacks, Special Christmas Eve Dinner, Special Christmas Morning Breakfast, and Special Christmas Day Dinner.  Of course you should use your mountains of spare time to prepare all food before the holiday; plan carefully so that frozen things stay frozen and thawed things get thawed, and be sure to map out a detailed oven/freezer/fridge schedule for the Big Day.  One misstep and it’s Christmas ’03 all over again.  You remember.
  • Read meaningful Christmas books, watch meaningful Christmas videos, and listen to meaningful Christmas music.  Do it until you love it.
  • Capture the moments.  On camera, on video, online, in your heart.  Don’t forget!  It’s all on you, Mom.
  • Teach your kids, emphatically, about the True Meaning of Christmas.  Don’t forget!  It’s all on you, Mom.

Unlike most of my posts, there is little hyperbole in this list.  Do you see why I needed a prayer?

I bet your list looked a lot like mine, and I bet you said a prayer too.  And I bet it sounded a lot like mine:  a plea for help in calming down, keeping perspective, and enjoying, rather than enduring, the merry month of December.

Did you get an answer to your prayer?

I did.

And it came, as most answers to prayers come, not through direction from without but rather a shift from within.  I’m not sure how, but amidst the aforementioned Colossal Tasks, I have felt calm, and quiet, and contented.  I have felt peace.  After I said that prayer, I decided that I would do what I had time for, and what I had energy for, and what simply sounded fun.   Outside of that, my only obligations were to sleep seven hours a night and hang out with the kids as much as possible.  And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

And guess what?  Everything that needed to get done got done.  (Or done enough.)  And everything that didn’t can wait until next year or fall off the list for good.  I decided that traditions exist to serve us and not the other way around, so I say What Stays and What Goes.  And I realized how good I feel when I’m not operating on a sugar coma, so why endure late night baking when I could be reading something great?

I also decided that sometimes giving a gift card is just fine.  Even some of those service projects—important as they are—will be perfect for New Years or Valentine’s Day, or just down the road for fun.  We don’t have to cram a year’s worth of Christian service into one week, and if we’re desperately trying to, we may want to examine how much we’re serving the rest of the year.  Christmas is about joy in our relationships, not hysteria in our hustling about.  When we try to do everything, it starts to mean nothing.

The house is a mess.  Right now, at our house, we have a tacky tree that I allowed my nine-year old to decorate (he insisted on the mismatched lights and chintzy paper star); cupboards and closets bursting with discarded decor, half-finished gifts, and wads of wrapping paper; a disaster of a pantry overflowing with half-full boxes of oranges (well-intentioned casualties of several school fundraisers) and powdered sugar bags that have yet to be whipped into cookies that I have yet to bake.  Not to mention the perma-pile of laundry looming on the couch upstairs.  I tell my kids:  if you want to wear it, go dig it out—those are my glad tidings.

The house is a mess.  But around that mess has been beautiful Christmas music playing every day (thank you, Pandora) and chatting with my kids by the fire every night (thank you, Cascade Natural Gas.)  Around that mess we’ve enjoyed the happy hum of quiet but real service, real talks, real people, real joy.  Not department store pretty, just red-faced and real.  And yes, even reverent.

The house is a mess, but my heart is at peace.  Because after sixteen years of motherhood, I’ve finally learned that the best parts of Christmas are found in The Mess.  The tacky tree, the sloppy wrap, the sticky floors and the unfinished to-do list—these are what make our family’s Christmas different from a department store’s; these are what make our Christmas mean something to us.  The kids don’t want perfection, they want a Mom who dances with them on that sticky floor, laughing and whispering about all the good things to come.  It’s all on you mom.

It’s all on us.

We can go all the way and “win,” or we can go partway and have fun.  We can live to impress or live just to love.  We can choose tidy and tired, or messy and magical.

As for me, I’ve done tidy and I’ve done tired and I’m not very good at either.  But I’m discovering that I’m pretty darn good at messy.  And I choose messy.