The year of the perfect Christmas photo

Written by Amy Olrick
Published on December 04, 2020

“Oh, honey. Look how cute this is.”

I held up a Christmas card that had just arrived in the mail, wanting my husband to see the two precious little girls smiling back at us from the front photo. 

Photographed while making cookies, the girls wore matching Christmas smocks and perfect beaming smiles. 

We didn’t have kids of our own yet, but, as I gazed at that photo, I silently promised myself that one day I would recreate a picture like that with my own children. 

And about five years later, when my first two boys were four and one, I decided our time had come. 

It was 2007, and it was going to be my year of “The Perfect Christmas Cookie-Making Photo.”

My first attempts

Right off the bat, things started differently than I had planned. 

As I herded my boys into the kitchen and pulled out the cookie press, four-year-old Josh started dancing with excitement. 

“Mommy, why do you have that gun? Can I have that gun? I want to play with that gun!!” 

Two hours, three spills, and one batch of cookies later, I didn’t have the energy to take a picture of the cookies, much less decorate them. 

And by the time I regained strength, most of them had already been eaten, anyway. 

But about a week later, I decided to try again. 

And what better time than the holidays to call in the elves?  

The Keebler Elves, that is.  

We would decorate Keebler’s Simply Shortbread cookies. No problem.

A big problem

As I set out our cookie-decorating supplies, my one-year-old’s eyes lit up with delight. He had never had such unlimited access to sugar. 

I handed him the white icing. His only movement—besides several attempts to pull the covering off the table—was between the bowl and his mouth. 

Josh and I decorated with some success, and then it was picture time. 

It is very difficult to get a picture of two small children smiling at the same time. 

After numerous attempts, I finally got a cute photo of my two little guys laughing with their cookies. 

But the victory was very short-lived for me. 

Less than ten minutes after I took my long-sought picture, stripped the boys out of their holiday shirts, and put the cookies away, I somehow managed to irretrievably delete my one serviceable photo. 

I am not making that up. 

Plan B

After that, I was all out of energy, so instead of one beautiful picture, I decided our Christmas card that year would be a compilation of outtakes. 

Finances were tight, so I printed the pictures on cheap holiday paper and wrote a note to friends and family that went something like this:

Instead of sending you a perfect picture, this year I’m sharing our outtakes—the not-so-perfect photos I snapped that chronicle my attempts at perfection. This feels appropriate because, with an unexpected move and job change, this year has felt like a series of outtakes for our family. I take some comfort in knowing that surely Mary had a very different birth plan in mind on that long-ago night in Bethlehem, but Love somehow managed to be born into the world in spite of the suffering and the squalor.

Blessings to you this holiday season, from my imperfect family to you and yours.

Unexpected blessings

I dropped the letters in the mail and checked “Send Christmas cards” off my holiday to-do list. 

I didn’t give the card much more thought until several days later when a friend called to tell me that she had received our letter and that it meant a lot to her. 

She said it was just what she needed to read in a season that had overwhelmed her with comparison. 

Over the next few days, I started hearing from others. 

They reached out to tell me they appreciated what I’d shared. 

The photos made them laugh, and the letter gave them permission to accept the messy imperfection of their own lives.

These responses caught me off guard. 

I had been so busy chasing my split-second image of perfection that I hadn’t realized if I had accomplished what I wanted—if I had perfectly staged a photo of smiling and well-coiffed small children and sent it off without commenting on all the work that went into making that picture happen . . . well, the image I sent out into the world wouldn’t have been the whole truth. 

My perfect snapshot might have made other people look at the reality of their own lives and compare themselves unfavorably to our one perfect photo. 

My friends and family didn’t want to see a perfect version of us. 

They wanted to know the real us so that they could be real too.

Cherish the mess

Thirteen years have passed since I sent out that letter, and the time when my boys were little enough to crawl on my lap to decorate cookies feels like a lifetime ago. 

I love who they are becoming and don’t miss the exhaustion of those days, but oh, how I also loved their giggles and shenanigans and big toothy smiles. 

Sometimes I even miss their messes. 

I wish I had known then what I know today—that life is made up mainly of outtakes. 

Joy rests not in flawless photos of perfect moments but in the stories we have to tell of the laughter, tears, and mischief along the way.

If I had been by Mary’s side that night in Bethlehem, would I have seen the love illuminating the stable? 

Even though the circumstances were far from perfect, I hope my heart would have leaped at the beauty of Jesus’ birth. 

Wherever you are this holiday season—planning for perfect days, hoping for the best, or just barely holding on—I wish you good tidings of great joy. 

From me and my imperfect family to you and yours.


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Amy Olrick

Amy Olrick is an author and human rights advocate whose work and writing has been featured in the Guardian and USA Today. Together, with her husband, Jeffrey, the Olricks run and produce the Growing Connected podcast, where they offer scientifically grounded and faith-informed resources for parents.

Read more about Amy

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