Last week, we loaded the old, squeaking Suburban and began the journey south. South to Shannon Hills. South to Sardis Road. South to the Bradbury Christmas Tree Farm. Rolling country roads unfolded like ribbons along the way, with each rise and fall inducing car sicknesses in the younger kids. That's why God made Kroger sacks. All part of the experience.
The sun was shining as we drove along listening to Christmas music on the radio. Conversations with our kids touched on a new job, college, high school, middle school, and elementary school. Holy cow, I thought. The life in this Suburban stretched from learning ABCs through To Kill a Mockingbird, into quadratic equations, thesis papers, and the intricacies of navigating the corporate world. The littlest one hummed along while picking at the foam poking out of the seat.
My wife and I have visited the Bradbury Tree Farm each Christmas for 25 years. We've battled rain, searing heat, and early snows to pick our tree. We've held kids in diapers, lost a few in the trees, and bounced on the back of the Suburban, holding the fresh-cut tree on top until we could get it to the cashier. It's one of those traditions that makes the holiday fuller, more profound. If we didn't do it, it'd be like skipping turkey at Thanksgiving.
For years, we've brought the tree home and arranged it in our living room with the classic movie Christmas Vacation playing in the background. The movie stars Chevy Chase as a dad who wants to host the perfect Christmas despite many failings along the way. A few fathers see Christmas Vacation as a comedy. The rest of us view it as a documentary. No Christmas is flawless. Even childhood memories illuminated by rosy hindsight can't escape that fact.
When I was a kid, we'd go to Christmas Eve Mass and then head to my aunt's house out on Lawson Road. We'd fidget during the service and then run for the station wagon, calling out seat assignments along the way. One year, we piled in and begged my mom and dad to stop talking to other adults, calling to them from the car to please hurry. They hopped in and we took off for the country, the deepness of night irradiated by blinking stars. My little sister sat between my parents in the front seat. My older brother and I commanded the middle row. My two little brothers usually sat in the far back without seats.
"Do we have Jeffy?" my mother called.
My brother looked over his shoulder at a tangle of blankets behind us. "Yes, he's back there."
We drove along in excitement, talking loudly and trying to sing carols.
"Jeff, why are you so quiet?" my dad asked.
"Someone wake him up." I reached behind me and shook the blankets behind the seat. Empty.
"He's not here."
The brakes slammed. My parents exchanged looks of horror. My dad whipped the station wagon in a tight circle. We tumbled against each other, our faces pinned against windows, dust and gravel kicked up under the tires.
When we arrived back at the church, Jeff stood alone at its entrance in his rumpled church clothes. Alone, except for the nun at his side. My dad ran up the long sidewalk to grab his son and the nun looked at him in a manner perfected in convents for centuries: she smiled with her lips and shot scorn with her eyes. Even as a boy, I remember how impressed--and terrified--I was at the conflicting emotions on her face.
After countless apologies, we sped to Lawson Road in silence. My parents felt awful. My brothers and I thought it was funny. My sister hummed along to carols. The Christmas we lost Jeff has been part of our family lore ever since.
Chevy Chase's character, Clark W. Griswold, repeatedly fails in his attempts to bring about the perfect Christmas. Every man who watches that movie feels a tinge of familiarity, a cringing recollection of best intentions marred by missteps. We watch the movie and laugh uncomfortably, but the holiday season is made better by the antics of the Griswold family.
The truth is that we enjoy Christmas Vacation because it's an exaggerated version of real life, and one easily applied to our own. We often have great ideas, try hard, take the wrong steps, fail (often laughably), and then suck it up and try again. Then we remember that the pathway to success is hidden within each of those failures until finally, we recognize it.
I could easily enumerate all the Christmas missteps I've made over the years. But they just blend into the background of the good times, the holy memories made by the interaction of a loving family. This year, we made it back from the Bradbury Farm with only one mishap: The tree started sliding off the roof due to loose strings intended to hold it down. Fortunately, my son caught it before it tumbled off the car. A quick fix and we resumed the drive. Today, it fills the living room with the unique evergreen smell and the warmth of an awaiting family.
In the fictional movie, Clark Griswold gets his long-awaited bonus and saves Christmas.
In real life, we get the wonderful miracle promised by the season. We get to live beyond the sum of our mistakes and embrace the majesty of redemption.
And despite all our mistakes, all our shortcomings, all our failures, we know that within redemption we find the laughter of our siblings, the hymns hummed by our youngest children, memories of not-so-perfect-but-endearing-anyway celebrations. In redemption, we find our true selves, that which we deem uniquely magnificent.
For it is within redemption, we find the meaning of Christmas.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 12/14/2019