With candles glowing softly in the living room, snow floating quietly into our front yard and the Bible opened to that familiar "shepherds abiding" story in the gospel of Luke, it was a picture-perfect Christmas Eve until the coffee table erupted in flames.
As part of my German heritage, our family has always opened at least one present on the night before Christmas. Somehow, a piece of wrapping paper got too close to a candle. It did not merely ignite; it exploded.
Instinctively, I began stomping on the paper in an effort to smother the flames. This is an effective way to stop a small fire unless you happen to be wearing brand-new furry "lion's head" slippers, which immediately flame to life like some kind of mythological beast roused from its thousand-year slumber.
In less time than it takes to sing "presents roasting on an open fire," our quiet holiday evening was transformed into a modern-day version of Dante's Inferno, only stupider and less poetic.
"Grab that thingy!" I yelled to my son Mark as I performed an impromptu version of"River Dance" (albeit with more smoke).
"The hose?" he yelled back.
"The red thingy that sprays stuff," barked.
But my wife, Dale, had already grabbed the fire extinguisher and began blasting away. In a roar of white mist the flames died out, and the room filled with gently falling ashes.
We all stared quietly at the mess.
My lion slippers sported melted whiskers, the coffee table bore scorch marks and white powder residue from the extinguisher covered the floor. We opened the doors and windows to clear the air and spent the evening cleaning things up. I don't think we ever got back to the shepherds abiding peacefully in their fields. And I finally gave up my quest for the perfect Christmas.
For many years, I had embarked on a futile attempt to achieve that elusive ideal—the romanticized holiday captured in magazines and 30-second TV commercials. The ingredients seemed so simple: a warm fire glowing in the hearth, hot cider brewing in the kitchen, the glow of the tree and my family snuggled together on the sofa as we recounted the touching story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.
But something always went wrong.
The fireplace belched smoke back into the room, a drink got spilled or one of the kids asked if he could play a video game right when the angels were about to bring tidings of great joy.
As each year passed without me realizing my dream of a perfect Christmas, I became progressively more uptight, obsessive and ridiculous.
All I want is one perfect holiday! Just one," I complained to Dale.
"Dave, we have kids! It will never be perfect," Dale replied. "Can you just let it be good? Can you just enjoy what actually is instead of what you think it should be?"
As is so often the case, my wife was right. Irritating at the time, but right nevertheless.
The perfect Christmas is a myth. After all, the first Christmas was hardly perfect. It was glorious and difficult, miraculous and earthy, sublime and sweaty, tender and yet so harsh. Angel songs were mixed with animal smells. The hopes and fears of all the years were jumbled together as heaven invaded a stable.
Nothing has really changed since then. Hopes and fears still meet. Christmas may not be perfect. But it can be good.