A version of this essay originally appeared as “Let Go, Breathe, Repeat” in The Pickle Patch on December 14, 2011.
If there’s one thing that being the mother of three young children is constantly re-teaching me, it’s to let go of my expectations. And if there’s one time of year that’s particularly loaded with expectations, it’s Christmas. You know: sleigh rides through snowy fields, sipping cocoa by a roaring fire, the whole family decorating the Christmas tree and gathering around a perfect holiday feast.
In contrast to the warm glow of those Norman Rockwell-style expectations, here are a few scenes from last year’s Christmas season:
1) I sat the girls down to sponge-paint gift cards, and instead of neatly dipping the sponge pieces in the paint, my middle child dug in with both hands and SMEARED, until she and the cards were completely covered. Then, of course, her sisters followed suit. I vented my frustration and disappointment because I wanted these to look NICE! And my oldest girl stared at me and said, “But Mommy, they DO look nice!” You know what? She was right.
2) Our whole family spent three weeks in December spreading around a stomach bug and a disgusting upper respiratory thing. But you know what? It forced us to slow down and hang around the house more, and I just had to relax about the cleaning.
3) We went to Middlebury College’s “Lessons and Carols” service, and the two girls next to us who were the SAME AGES as our oldest girls sat quietly, while our daughters squirmed so much that we had to leave after ten minutes. On the way back to the car, my oldest daughter picked up a huge frozen chunk of snow, dropped it on my foot, and broke my toe. And you know what? I’m not so sure what I learned from this other than that our girls aren’t yet ready for serious musical performances, and that it’s no good comparing your kids to others (how many times will I need to relearn THAT?). But my daughter learned that snowballs you pick up are definitely harder than those you make.
Then there was the perpetually-tilting Christmas tree, the rushed Christmas dinner punctuated by toddler tragedies, and the snowshoes that we gave each other for our first Vermont Christmas and used ONCE because there was never any snow. All, now, humorous anecdotes when seen at a year’s distance.
This idea of altered expectations is beautifully captured in Jean Little’s children’s book, Pippin the Christmas Pig. Last December, one of my girls tossed this book into our library bag. I’d never heard of it before, and didn’t have high expectations. “Great, another overly sentimental holiday animal story,” was what crossed my mind. Then I read it to my daughters at naptime, and unexpectedly found myself fighting back tears.
The premise: All the animals in the barn are boasting about the roles that their ancestors played in the first Christmas, but they completely brush off Pippin the pig because, of course, pigs didn’t have any place in the manger scene. Hurt, Pippin runs out into the snow, where he finds a single mother and her infant daughter walking along the road. He nudges them into the barn for shelter. And here’s the kicker:
…[A]ll the animals turned to Pippin.
“Who is this woman?” snapped Curly.
“Pippin, we can’t take in some homeless nobody,” Noddy added.
“My very-great –” Bess began.
“We’ll need milk,” said Pippin. “We’ll need some warm, soft wool. We’ll need your old blanket, Noddy. We’ll need lots of lullabies. Your VERY-GREAT-grandparents aren’t here. You must help this baby yourselves.”
“But that’s not a special baby,” Noddy protested.
“Of course she is,” said Pippin. “All babies are special.”
Noddy gazed into the small sleeping face.
“You are right,” he said. “I’d forgotten.”
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the original Christmas met the expectations of exactly nobody.
When Christmas refuses to live up to our expectations — as it almost always does — that opens up a space for us to see what’s true.
I hope that this Christmas season surprises you, too, by NOT living up to your expectations in the best possible way.