It was the first Christmas our broken family would be spending in two homes instead of one. We were in pain from the separation, but desperately determined to fake holiday cheer for the children. That's why my husband, Craig, showed up one night carrying a tree.
It was the ugliest Christmas tree I'd ever seen—half dead, droopy, with brittle needles that hit our tile floor like a steady rain. I wondered if he'd chosen what had to be the worst tree in the lot on purpose. Still, Craig made hopeful noises while arranging the frail branches and I allowed my silence to speak for itself. Then I left the room because witnessing this awkward scene hurt too much. Even the Christmas music playing in the background sounded hollow and desperate.
As I kissed the kids good night, there was a crash. I ran back to the living room to find the tree had fallen and Craig standing there frozen, sweat streaming down his face. Ornaments were scattered and shattered. I melted into the wreckage, picking up the smashed keepsakes I'd assumed would be passed down to my grandchildren. I begged Craig to find the superglue while I desperately tried to piece random glass shards into something recognizable. My 10-year-old son, Chase, walked in and his eyes widened and filled with tears. I wiped my own tears, plastered on a smile and said, "Everything's fine! Everything's just fine!"
And with that—with that "everything's just fine"—something shifted and I was able to see clearly what I was doing on the floor and to my family. I was trying to un-break broken things. I was trying to force my family and my life backward. Back into the "perfect family" box that I'd built of Christmas Card Families and holiday commercial homes. But we couldn't move backward and we didn't fit in that box anymore. Instead we were stuck. And the only way to get us unstuck was for me to let us be what we were: a little busted-up but still a family.
People change and relationships change and that means that families change, homes change and holidays change. When we hold tight to what once was, when we refuse to make new traditions and instead try to un-break broken things, we miss out on both the beauty of what is and the hope of what might one day be.
I handed a broom to Craig and a dustpan to Chase and we swept up the shards. Then Chase and I drove to the drugstore to buy boxed cookies and two-dollar tinsel. We giggled on the way, a little bit thrilled to be out past bedtime in our jammies. When we got home, Craig and the girls were waiting—sleepy, curious and snuggling on the couch. We turned up the music and redecorated our ugly tree together. Everyone seemed happy.
After we were done, we curled up on the couch and let our tree be lovely in its own way. And I decided to let my far-from-perfect family be lovely in its own way too. Maybe my kids didn't need perfect. Maybe they just needed Craig and me to keep showing up and proving to them that there is always beauty to be found in the messes of family and home.
This holiday we will be under one roof again. We've been pieced back together with the superglue of hope and stubbornness and luck. But though we're reunited, nothing will be perfect. We'll admire our tree and family with different burdens on our shoulders. And this is more than okay. That year taught us that there is no Perfect Christmas. It also taught us that middle-of-the-night cookies and ugly-tree decorating might be a tradition worth keeping—forever.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.