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How to keep magic in the holidays

December 22, 2011

The following column was written by Mark Benn, licensed psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor at Colorado State University. A version of the column appeared in The Denver Post on Saturday, December 17.

Mostly everyone I know dreams of having an incredibly perfect holiday season. And yet, everyone I know comes from a crazy family, or at least have people in their family who are crazy. I know I do. It’s like a badge of courage, something we often talk about or carry around like a trophy – until the holiday season when we’re forced to spend time with the family members we get to avoid the rest of the year…in my house we affectionately refer to this as FFF (forced family fun).

'Nobody's perfect'

In the movie, “Some Like it Hot” the final line is, “nobody’s perfect” which is a great summary statement for how to truly enjoy the holidays.  The real joy of the holidays is in the madness, not the quest for perfection.

There’s a quote by Leonard Cohen in which he says, ‘there’s no such thing as perfect, everything has cracks – that’s how the light gets in.’

When I think about the holiday season and I recall the memories of my life it’s not the perfect holidays I remember, it’s the imperfect ones – the ones when things just didn’t go quite right. Like the time we went to the mountains to cut our tree rather than buying one at the local tree lot – it was so cold that year that no amount of clothes could have saved us. We put the tree on the top of the car and began the hour-long drive home – as we drove we noticed that the tree was slowly becoming more and more visible as it slid off the roof of the van and worked its way out of the ties to fly off the car into the air nearly causing an accident. Now THAT was memorable.

This led me to wonder how it is that every year many people start to go a little crazy trying to recapture the magic and find perfection. Thinking of some fantasy that seems to suggest they can remake a perfect Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, or New Year.

The reality is that Christmas WAS magic for a very short time in life, probably sometime between the ages of three and eight – five years, maybe.  It wasn’t magic at two, two year olds HATE Christmas; two year olds think Santa is scary. Nobody really remembers being 3, 4, or 5. The only real magical holiday time is so far back for most of us that it might as well not even happened.

Author Mark Benn, Colorado State University assistant psychology professorThe magic of the holiday season is actually in the cracks – for the light to shine in. The really incredible holiday is when crazy things happened, like staying up all night to make that thing your child HAD to have; the time you went to cut a tree in the mountains instead of buying one and you froze your buns off; the time you tried to strap that tree to the top of your car and it slowly slid off while you were driving home; or the time that family member got so sick you had to put her in the tub to bring down her temperature. Heck, I can go on and on with my (true) disaster stories of holidays past – those are the ones I remember best.

Finding Christmas magic

The problem is that we have such incredibly high expectations for things to go a certain way and when they don’t – we get sad, disappointed and depressed. Christmas magic is something that used to happen – and it was great fun – but the truth is you’re grown up now and you know the trick. If you were a magician’s assistant and you knew how the tricks were done you’d be less likely to oooh and aaahhh when the trick got pulled off on the audience.

The holidays are like that. You know the trick, so the magic isn’t magic – it’s a job. So bring the magic back. See the cracks as a part of the joy – actually, the cracks are the joy! That’s what we remember – the good stuff fades away and gets forgotten. The crazy stuff is what we remember and laugh and cry about for the rest of our lives.

That’s the real magic of the holiday season – enjoying the cracks while they’re cracking…even when you know the trick that created the magic.