The year I ruined Christmas

The babe in the manger understands what it means to be human, in all our imperfections.
Our Faith

“I’m going to burn your Christmas presents!” I screeched from the top of the stairs at my 7-year-old son. Bloated from my fourth pregnancy and past my due date, my face was turning as red as the ribbons hanging on our tree.

When speaking my wedding vows eight years earlier, I never imagined I would be making that threat to my children. In my nuptial naivety, I had pictured a life with a calm, cherubic gaggle of children who would sing Christmas carols around the tree while drinking hot chocolate in their matching pajamas before kissing their parents good night. Yet, there I stood on Christmas Eve, engaged in a shouting match with our three children for some insignificant Yuletide misdeed.

I should have known my patience was wearing thin at Christmas Eve Mass. I was too caught up in anxiety about how others perceived me to pay attention to the alarm bells in my brain. As my husband and I wrestled the two toddlers in our arms and begged our oldest to sit still, I imagined judgment from every pew. Self-appointed shame colored my checks because my lived reality fell far short of my internal ideal. My focus was on regulating their behavior because I wanted to look good rather than helping them hear the good news of Jesus’ birth.

My mood only continued to tumble from there. After leaving Mass, the children were unruly and fighting over their toys. They tried to open all the presents under our tree and made messes with snacks. Their excitement for the holiday turned into excess energy that interrupted my meal preparations for our dinner the next day. In short, it was real, stressful, messy family life.


The ironic part of this story is that I would have told you our family was having a low-key Christmas. Awaiting a baby, we had skipped the formal clothing and the seated dinner and pared back on the presents. I proudly proclaimed that I had no excessive expectations for Christmas. Our family had not lost sight of the reason for the season. We had avoided the pitfalls of stress so often associated with the holidays. 

If that were true, I would not have been standing on those steps watching three small faces crumple into tears as I screamed—all because the life I was living didn’t match the greeting card imagery that lived inside my head. In spite of everything I believed about myself, I was still caught up in the false narrative that Christmas had to be perfect. The image I wanted to project of our family became more important than my flesh and blood children. Christmas, if assessing my actions, was about me instead of Jesus.

My husband, as usual, was the one to recall me to myself. He wrapped me into a hug, smoothed his hand over my belly, and told me to take a break. Slipping into our bedroom, I lumbered onto the bed and began to confront the impact of my actions. In trying to create the image of a happy family at Christmas, I had made my children deeply unhappy, and I needed to apologize.

A little while later, after a long, hot shower to relieve my stress, my husband had calmed the kids, and I sat on the couch looking into their faces again.


“I’m so sorry I said those mean things,” I said. “I would never burn your Christmas presents, and I am sorry I scared you. Even though mommy gets angry sometimes, it’s not an excuse to treat you like that. Can you please forgive me?”

Three sets of small arms wrapped around various parts of my body with the fierce simplicity of childlike love. The transgression was forgiven without reservation or hesitation because they loved me and simply wanted to know that I loved them unconditionally in return.

I am still humbled by the gift of that forgiveness. Close to a decade later, I asked my children what they thought about that moment, and each one informed me they couldn’t even remember the event at all. This moment that continues to be a source of shame and hurt for me is so insignificant as to be nonexistent for them—because their love for me and their belief in my goodness is so much greater than the moments when I have failed them.

Their childlike love that Christmas was, and still is, a proclamation of the good news of the nativity. The story of Christmas is not only about the joy of God becoming a baby. It is also a story of who that baby is: Jesus of Nazareth, crucified on a Roman cross so that my sins are not the end of the story; instead, my redemption is. God became human in order to offer redemption from our worst moments and to affirm the goodness God sees in us even when we cannot see it in ourselves. Like my kids, God does not withhold forgiveness nor hold onto the bad things we have done. My children, by loving me with their whole hearts, allowed me to experience mercy disproportionate to my transgression—a mirror of the great love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. My family was, and continues to be, a sacrament for me, a tangible sign of God’s grace in my life which makes that grace present and active in my life.


Ten years removed from what we now call the great Christmas debacle, I can look back with a sense of humor and sympathy for myself. My temper has always been my besetting sin, and it will be my cross to bear until the day I die. The joy I find in Christmas now is in knowing that Jesus was born into the world to bear it with me. My redemption was always part of the plan, and, even in the creche, God desired to transform my heart.

This Christmas Eve, I plan to tell the story of that Christmas to my children once again. I’m going to share all the ugly parts even though it will make me look less than perfect. Because the story of my worst Christmas memory is also the story of God’s unfathomable love incarnated in my life. It speaks the truth of what God’s birth into space and time truly means for each of us who, as St. Paul says in Roman 7:15, do not do what we want, but what we hate, in spite of ourselves. The babe in the manger understands fully what it means to be human and is present in the midst of our daily lives. Jesus is the Prince of Peace because he is able to give us a new way of living which transforms our hearts for good and offers hope to the world around us. And that story, the story of the God who loves them more than I ever could, is the most important thing they will ever hear. It’s a gift that cannot burn or perish, no matter how much anyone threatens to take it away.

Image: Pexels/Liza Summer


About the author

Shannon Wimp Schmidt

Shannon Wimp Schmidt is the content director for TENx10 Youth Ministry Collaboration, cohost of Plaid Skirts and Basic Black Podcast, and author of the book Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s (Ave Maria Press). She lives in Chicagoland with her husband, Eric, and their four children. Follow her on Instagram, TikTok and Threads: @teamquarterblack.

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