The myth of the perfect Christmas photo family

There’s a story behind every Christmas card photo. This is ours…

Our car looks like something Santa would drive. It has a red body, capped with a white top. Soon that white top will have a green tree strapped to it. At least that’s the plan. We’re on our our annual trip to the Christmas tree farm where we also hope to get the perfect family picture for our Christmas card.

I tune the radio to the Christmas channel. I’ve become that cheesy Chevy Chase dad who tries too hard to instill a little extra energy into moments in an effort to build childhood memories.

I’m about to join the chorus when a little voice in the back starts to sing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.” It’s our four-year-old son, Griffin. I slowly turn to make eye contact with my wife, Annie, sitting in the passenger seat.

This is a moment.

I take a hand off the steering wheel and put it over my heart like I’m an 80-year-old grandma, acknowledging the moment without interrupting it. A four-year-old singing along with the radio might not seem like a big deal, but this is a big deal. Griffin is on the autism spectrum. He sings plenty, but not with the radio.

None of us move or speak. It’s just Griff singing and the sound of a car dodging potholes on a rural Indiana road.

We’re five minutes into a month of Christmas celebrations, and I can’t think of a better gift. Christmas is off to a great start.

And then we pull up to the Christmas tree farm. It’s closed. Not just temporarily, but devoid of life, like it’s a location to film The Walking Dead.

A cry breaks the silence, bringing an abrupt end to any Christmas magic. Harper, our six-year-old daughter cannot deal with this.

“What are we going to do?” She whimpers.

We’ve come to this farm since she could remember. There was nothing fancy about it. The trees were only twenty bucks regardless of size. You cut it, you carried it, you tied it to your car, and there wasn’t the first note of Christmas music or whiff of hot chocolate to be enjoyed.

Damn it, we’re going to make a new Christmas tradition, I think. I ask Siri for the directions to the nearest tree farm. It’s 40-minutes away.

Whatever is the opposite of Christmas magic fills the car.

A cartoon Christmas tree points the way to the new farm. There are lights, music, people full of Christmas cheer. A retired grandpa, who looks and acts like he’s taken time off from whittling toys for orphans to spread peace on Earth and goodwill to men, greets us. He gives us a shiny new saw and a Christmas tree cart.

Griffin wants to ride on the cart. He sits on one of the crossbars and smiles until one of his boots catches on the ground and he nearly falls off. I take him off, and he looks like a drunken cowboy as he tries to walk in his new boots.

He wants back on the cart. We try it again, and again it doesn’t work. He doesn’t understand why he can’t ride. I’m forced to run with the cart so he can’t get to it. He runs after me. At first he thinks it’s funny, but then he starts to get upset and cries as he pursues me. I keep running anyhow.

We stop at a tree that’s nice but way too big.

“Let’s do the picture here,” Annie says.

For some reason the cuteness of kids’ faces are multiplied by ten if they wear a hat. Annie pulls out Griff’s hat and shoves it down across his ears. At his therapy, he will wear his hat for 30 seconds. She has him stand next to Harper and then steps back to snap the photo.

I make funny faces and dance like an idiot behind Annie.

“Smile, Harper! Look here, buddy!”

Griff starts to pull at his hat.

“It hurts to smile!” Harper cries. She’s been dealing with a canker sore for the last few days.

Only half of her top lip moves. The other side droops into a pirate grimace.

I keep dancing and Griffin looks at me as if wondering, “What is wrong with my father?”

Annie stops trying and gives me the “let’s get a damn tree and get out of this Christmas wonderland hell hole” nod.

I run ahead with the cart, pursued by my crying autistic son.

Remember those scenes from The Lord of the Rings where the fellowship is crossing some high mountain pass? In these scenes there is epic music and the camera will zoom in on the travelers’ faces, which reflect all the trials and tribulations, the wear and the tear that led them to this–yet another–painful moment. That’s our family looking for a Christmas tree.

I’m running. Harper is holding her swollen mouth as if one of her horrible parents just slapped her. Annie is trying to grab Griffin’s hand to keep him from escaping our family to join another. I don’t blame him. All the other families look so happy.

“What’s your name?!” Griffin shouts, pointing at a family who’ve found a tree. They’re all wearing Santa hats. Even their freaking tree is wearing a Santa hat and tinsel.

They introduce themselves, and then the perfect mother asks, “Do you like to take pictures, buddy?”

Griffin doesn’t answer. But what four-year-old would be all like, “Yes, ma’am, I’d be happy to take a photo of your family”?

“I’ll take it,” I say.

The perfect mother and father put their arms around their two perfect daughters and they all smile perfect smiles. Not one of them looks like a pirate. Each picture I snap is more perfect than the one before.

I want to take the phone and throw it into the row of blue spruce behind us. Instead, I hand her the phone and they wish us a Merry Christmas. We walk away to the sound of the father’s battery-powered saw firing up. That’s right, he brought his own saw.

Once we’re out of earshot, Annie and I start laughing. It’s either that or crying.

And then Harper finds “our” Christmas tree, which makes her mouth hurt less. We take an imperfect selfie with the tree and get a picture of the kids “good enough” to work for our card.

It’s a picture where the smiles are genuine, partly because the kids are excited about the tree and partly because I’ve added singing to my dancing while Annie snapped the shot.

Weeks from now, a hundred or so people will open a Christmas card from the Timmerman family. They’ll add it to the pile of other smiling families, made up of people with canker sores, moments of joy, autism, unreasonable expectations, and a whole host of other things that make life interesting. But are they all perfect?

We try to make our family photos look like perfect moments, as if those are the only moments worth capturing. Maybe so, but without imperfect moments there would be no perfect moments. They’re all worth remembering.

Years from now, when I look at our 2015 Christmas card, I’ll remember Griffin singing and crying, Harper’s pathetic little pirate mouth and the light in her eyes when she found our tree. I’ll remember Annie’s look of impatience and the laugh we shared as we drove away from the farm with a green tree on our Santa car filled with Christmas music and Griffin shouting, “Turn it off, please!”

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