Every year we make the same trip. We load up the kids in the minivan and head over to chop down the family Christmas tree Clark Griswold style. Yesterday was the day – instead of heading to the mall we chopped down a tree. My kids have come to expect it – it’s become what you might call a Lief family tradition. The trip usually starts the same way, with the kids pushing and fighting as they pile in the van – my son making the usual loud animal grunts and bellows – followed by the usual empty parental threats. You know, “If you don’t quit fighting there’ll be no tree this year.” After everyone has settled down, we pull out of the driveway with the radio playing cheesy Christmas music – this year it was a snazzy rendition of jingle bells followed by some classic Mannheim Steamroller. Once we arrive at the tree farm we all pile out, grab a saw from the barrel, and start scouting out the perfect tree. My kids think every tree is the perfect tree. Seriously – we didn’t get past the first row and my oldest daughter found the one she wanted. After convincing her we should look around a bit, the kids took off in a dead sprint – weaving in and out of the trees, yelling, humming, and every other row or so telling us they’ve found “the one.” My youngest daughter Savannah, who’s four, inevitably ends up crying. Last year she refused to get out of the van – so we drove in a ways, put on a movie, and there she sat, content to let us experience all the Christmas bliss. This time she tripped over my legs as I was trying to cut the tree and away she went – tears and wailing.
With the tree cut down, loaded on the tractor wagon, we headed back to pay the bill and get some hot chocolate. I’m sure my wife told them to just drink it – not to play with it, not to try and drink it with the plastic spoons they used to stir it – but, as usual, more of it ended up on their jackets than in their mouths. As we headed back outside to warm up by the fire, we gave them a warning – look out for dog turds. Every year (I’m not exaggerating) someone steps in it. As we headed over to the fire, our eyes scouted the ground in front of us for land mines. We thought we have made it… home free… but as we sat by the fire taking pictures, the unmistakable smell began to waft into our nostrils. Sure enough… Savannah, the four year old, had stepped in it. Not only did she step in it, but somehow it ended up on her jeans. So with the tree tied to the roof of our van, and with Savannah’s shoes wrapped in a plastic bag, we made our way home, listening to Christmas music, the of dog crap in the air.
Last night, as we looked at the newly decorated tree, I commented on how it looked lopsided. “Of course it is, “my wife replied, “that’s how we know its real – it’s not perfect.” It’s not perfect. We’ve long given up trying to create the “perfect” holiday experience with idyllic holiday memories. We’re not even that concerned to give our kids so called “authentic” experiences – canned synthesizer holiday music and the Grinch who Stole Christmas are still their favorites. Sure, we have our traditions, but they’re not perfect – which is why they’re memorable. In the spirit of thanksgiving, I thank God that to be human, to be a creature, means we’re not perfect. Not in some sinful or fallen way, but in a good way. A way that makes room for the quirky and the peculiar – keeping open the possibility of surprise. My guess is, a few years down the road, we’ll be sitting around a table laughing about the time the tree flew off of the van onto the highway, and I’m sure I’ll be nostalgic for four year old feet and the sweet smell of dog turds.