How I Learned to Embrace the Imperfection of Holidays With Family

christmas gifts in car trunk

The snow floating softly outside the windows. My dad tending a roaring fire while Christmas carols played softly in the background. My mother and grandma cooking a feast, creating luscious smells that wafted through the house. A Norman Rockwell–worthy memory that I had from my childhood was my muse for recreating perfect holidays for my young boys.


Fast-forward to their teen years, and making a picture-perfect Christmas wasn't so easy. Gone were the days of wish lists of toys I could buy with ease. Anything they wished for now would require a second mortgage. Gone were endless hours of baking cookies together or decorating the tree. I could barely get them to sit with me at dinner. The magic of Christmas had dissipated with their youth, and last year, I was desperate to reclaim it.

So just before our trip from New Jersey to Vermont to spend the holidays with my family, I insisted on putting up our tree. I merrily delegated the task of stringing the lights to the boys, while I made cookies. As Christmas music played softly in the background, the sound of laughter moved me from the kitchen. Mixing bowl in hand, I nearly fell over horrified as I watched the tree spin like a top. My eldest, Alex, twirled the tree, as his brother, Zach, haphazardly guided the string of lights around it.

"Mom, this is a much quicker way of putting up lights!" they declared while simultaneously checking their iPhones. Tangled multicolored lights dangled unevenly from our pathetic, fake tree. I stomped away, irritated by their lack of holiday spirit, yet partially impressed by their ingenuity.

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Later, as I barely squeezed the last package in my car's trunk and slowly reached up to close it, Zach came running out holding his skis.

"Wait! Don't shut it!"

"Vermont has no snow. What are you going to do with those?"

"You always say to be prepared," he retorted, shoving the skis in the trunk, which was followed by a loud crunching sound.

"Mom, you pack way too much!" Alex chimed in as he exited the house, cat carrier in hand.

"Boys, holidays take work! You probably just crushed the cookies I made!" I sniffed as I grabbed for a tissue, my head cold depleting my energy. I grabbed our post–oral surgery cat from Alex just as the sky opened and rain poured down.

We spent four long, exhausting hours arguing over the radio and debating the need to stop at certain cranky relatives' homes for visits. The mood finally lifted as we saw the "Welcome to Vermont" sign. The boys let out a collective cheer, and for a minute I had hope for the holiday. But, like a needle pricking a balloon, my hopes vanished when I saw the flashing red and blue lights in the rearview mirror.

"Mom, were you speeding?" the boys asked, like they were ready to side with the prosecution and throw the book at me.

The next morning I pulled the covers over my head and took stock: one loopy cat, two uninspired teens, a head cold, and one speeding ticket. My Normal Rockwell holiday was a bust. The sudden sound of laughter got my attention and I threw back the covers (accidentally hitting the sleeping cat -- sorry!).

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In the living room, a roaring fire warmed the house as the snow drifted outside the window. Alex and Zach sat laughing as they retold my speeding ticket story to their cousins.

My brother came over and offered me a piping-hot cup of coffee.

"Remember our holidays growing up?" he asked.

"They were awesome!" I answered, taking that first reviving sip.

"Awesome? What holidays were you at? Remember how Dad always flooded the room with smoke when he lit the fire in the fireplace? And how Mom got frustrated when she cooked with Grandma, and she'd go talk to herself in the bathroom?"

I laughed at those forgotten memories. "Funny how I've suppressed the less appealing details!" I said.

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"Mom and Uncle Frank, come sit over here," Alex and Zach requested with a huge smile.

Nestled in between my boys, coffee in hand, I realized that some things change over time, but the important things remain the same. Family, love, and laughter, sprinkled with a small dose of stress and irritation, always makes for a perfectly imperfect holiday.


Celeste Chin left the corporate world to raise her children and eventually pursue a career in writing. Also a substitute teacher, she lives in New Jersey with her two teenage boys. Celeste recently completed writing her first children’s novel, for children 9 to 12 years old. Her favorite hobbies surround spending time with her sons, either on the golf course, skiing, hiking, or kayaking, just to name a few.

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