What makes Christmas perfect?

Published 12:02 am Friday, December 18, 2009

There was no such thing as a perfect Christmas in the Hillyer house.

The harder my mother tried to make the holidays match that impossible vision dancing in her head, the more imperfect the days leading up to Christmas seemed to get.

As a child, my mother never really celebrated the season. In my own childhood, I frequently heard her tell stories about passing the holiday in a house filled more with angry words than holiday greetings. There may have been a small tree and a few gifts, but Christmas never matched the pictures my mother saw in magazines and books.

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Those shiny, happy holiday images that she never experienced, my mother vowed she would give her children.

As a result, my childhood memories of Christmas are filled with my mother going all out to trim the tree, decorate the house, make wreaths, put on parties, bake cookies, light candles, sing carols and finally slump over in exhaustion as December 25th approached.

It made for some wonderful childhood memories. But somewhere along the way, the effort to get things just right inevitably ended in frustration.

Until Thursday night, I had never heard the story of my first Christmas.

Barely out of their teens, my parents spent that Christmas in 1968 alone and cold with a baby boy just beginning to crawl.

They were struggling to make ends meet and didn’t have enough money to pay the rent for their tiny, drafty South Carolina apartment.

Two days before Christmas, they scraped up enough change to buy the only sapling left at the local tree lot. It looked more like a couple of bare twigs than it did a Christmas tree. It cost two dollars.

Huddled that night around a tiny space heater, they decorated the tree with homemade ornaments. That heater was the only source of heat they had. They used it in the nursery to keep me warm.

The next day, my mother returned from the mailbox with a Christmas card and a check from my great-grandfather in Alabama. The money was just enough to pay the rent. My mother describes that moment as miraculous.

She describes that Christmas as the best she has ever had.

In recent days I have felt that same pressure my mother must have felt when I was a child. I have thought that I must start our six-month-old child’s Christmas right. Now is the time to start those new family traditions, friends have said. The tree needs to be perfect; the gifts need to be perfect; the holiday needs to be perfect.

But as a new father I still find it hard to keep up with the day-to-day. Christmas is just another ball that I have to add to the others I am already juggling.

With a few presents bought and no family Christmas cards sent, I feel that same stress that I experienced in childhood, only, this time I am on the other side of the equation.

I called my mother Thursday to tell her not to expect much of a gift this year. “We have just been too busy keeping up with the baby,” I said.

In response she said she understood and then told the story of my first Christmas — huddled around a scraggly Christmas tree and a space heater in a tiny, empty apartment.

Sounds like a perfect Christmas to me.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.