By Shannon Evans
For four years of his life, my oldest son asked for an electric train every single Christmas.
Now look, my husband and I, we aren’t horrible parents. We are neither spiteful nor neglectful, so it’s not like we purposefully failed to fulfill his little heart’s deepest desire. The first year we thought it was an adorable thing to ask for, but we couldn’t find one in any local shops so we shrugged and bought other items on his list instead.
When he asked for an electric train again the next year, we knew we had to follow through this time. So we managed to find a small and, frankly, cheap one that seemed to satisfy if not wow him.
By the following year, that one had long been broken and was missing parts that had never been searched for, because who cares about electric trains once Christmas is over? Alas, it was back on the list. We managed to find him a large model of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express, which pleased him more than the last one but presumably less than whatever he had pictured in his mind, because the next year — you guessed it — “electric train” was back on the list. Meanwhile the Hogwarts Express was on display on a shelf in his room, untouched.
“Do you really need a new train?” I asked him. “Is that really what you want for Christmas, out of all the things you could ask for?”
He considered this. “Well, I don’t really know what else to ask for. And in movies the electric trains are always going around the Christmas tree. They look so cool circling all the presents.”
I agreed with him. Electric trains do look cool going around Christmas trees in the movies. So cool, in fact, that it’s easy to think that if you don’t have one — nay, if you don’t have the perfect one — your Christmas doesn’t measure up. Your pathetic, trainless Christmas is just not quite as festive as everyone else’s. You are missing out.
The truth is, I don’t know a single family who actually has an electric train running around their Christmas tree. (I’m sure they exist, and I’m sure the setup is delightful, I have just never been invited over to behold the scene.) But I do know how easy it is to look at other homes — real or fictional — and imagine that their holidays are somehow perfect, with all the bells and whistles that mine doesn’t have, and none of the bickering or stress that mine does.
We all do this, don’t we? We concoct such specific requirements for what constitutes “measuring up” to the imagined ideal of Christmas that we miss out on some of the joy that would have come from just being present to the things that make our own holiday traditions so grace-infused. Even the people who have the proverbial electric train will always find something else they wish they had: a more impressive tree, better baking skills, a 16-foot inflatable Santa Claus for the front yard. Or maybe, healthy and authentic relationships to give the season meaning.
Chasing imagined ideals can never satisfy us, whether that’s Christmas decorations or family dynamics. Most people don’t have electric trains around their tree like the beautiful illustrations in my children’s picture books. Most people don’t resolve their long-standing family conflict in 90 minutes like the characters in the Christmas movies we love to watch every year. We can make peace with that, knowing that grace can be found in the mess and flaws, or we can cling to our ideas of perfection and be disappointed by anything less.
The holidays are not a formula to be followed, but an invitation to be accepted. If we stop fixating on that “train” we don’t have, what better things might we discover a longing for instead?
Shannon K. Evans is the spirituality and culture editor at the National Catholic Reporter and the author of the books “Feminist Prayers for My Daughter: Powerful Petitions for Every Stage of Her Life” and “Rewilding Motherhood: Your Path to an Empowered Feminine Spirituality.” Learn more about Shannon’s work at shannonkevans.com.