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Illustration by Joy Kim

I love Christmas more than is reasonable. So as a mother, I wasn’t content to just provide my children with a happy Christmas. For my children, the holiday had to be nothing short of legendary. Nothing illustrated the flaw in this misplaced ambition better than our annual trip to the Christmas tree farm.

Each year, while I experienced a phenomenon similar to the selective amnesia of childbirth, my husband alone bore the burden of remembering how the holidays would begin. There could be no chainsaw-hacked tree from the corner lot for my perfect celebration. We would cut it fresh at the farm, kneeling in the cold December mud, just as baby Jesus surely intended. This small sacrifice would probably have been fine, on its own, but for the drama. There was always drama.

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Simply put, we were city dwellers out of our element. At my insistence, we always arrived at the farm before lunch to squeeze every possible bit of Christmas joy out of the day. Nothing ensures joy quite like dragging everyone from their warm beds to trek through the woods in early December. Part of the experience was cooking lunch over the open fire at the farm, but for that, we needed hot dog roasting sticks and one year I forgot to pack them. The farm’s signage had an angry, tough-love stance on the expectations of city folk. “We are not a mall. We do not sell hats, gloves or socks. We sell Christmas trees.” They didn’t sell roasting sticks, either.

Ever resourceful (and hungry), the children found twigs to use, which I hoped wouldn’t transfer anything detrimental into the hot dogs. That is, nothing more detrimental than the hot dogs themselves.

Some years it was the kids who created the complications. One year, our oldest child, nearing her teens and full of opinions, spent the 90-minute car ride to the farm voicing her disapproval of the hassle and expense of our annual ritual. She pointed out that we had a perfectly good tree in the yard that we already planned to cut down soon. Why couldn’t we just use that?

Gallantly, my husband came to the defence of my beloved tradition, which I appreciated since above all, I know he is a frugal man. I am absolutely certain the same idea had occurred to him and resisting the temptation to jump sides to save a few bucks must have been another terrible burden for him. My daughter’s mood set the tone for the day. To the baffled woman at whose campfire I found my daughter tearfully spilling the story of her family hardships: I’m really, really sorry.

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Other times, the drama originated with events out of our control, like the year of the missing keys. We’d sold our minivan that year because the kids had outgrown coming everywhere with us. So we divided the family and their friends into two cars. The whole day was pleasant, though by then, we should have known.

The Christmas tree farm has a huge structure made of straw bales for climbing and my son and his friend spent most of the day there. As we packed up, I asked my son for the keys that he’d borrowed earlier to get something out of the car. He dug into all his pockets, his face blanching paler than the heavy snow falling from the cold dark sky. We’d had such a great day, but I knew this was it. This was the grandest of our seasonal disasters. Like the sea, you don’t ever let down your guard at the Christmas tree farm.

Finding keys in a jungle gym made of straw, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, is akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Snow whirled all around us as we searched furtively and futilely. The farm was closing. We couldn’t all fit in one car and it would be hours before my husband could return with the other set of keys. There was no town nearby with an open restaurant where we could wait. It was going to be a cold, bleak couple of hours.

But when I asked the manager if we could wait by the fires rather than at the side of the road, he surprised me by offering to drive us back to the city. We were fellow sailors adrift in a sea of trees and there was a universal code that no one would be left behind. We piled into the truck and talked Christmas trees for an hour and a half, which was more interesting than it sounds. Really.

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Recounting the tale to friends and relatives that Christmas, I realized it was the best year and the best story yet – the stuff of legends. It even ended happily, after a time. One fine, spring day in early April, our keys turned up on the doorstep via Purolator.

But the incident of the missing keys changed the way I looked at my frantic approach to Christmas. I finally realized I was going about this all wrong. I’d been trying to make the Perfect Christmas experience for my kids, but perfect isn’t memorable. In fact, perfect is a tremendous bore. Flaws are memorable. The things we don’t plan for are what we tell the stories about. The best ones – the ones that become legendary – are not perfect. It’s the mistakes, the goofs and the glitches that make memories.

Theresa Therrien lives in London, Ont.