Annual bragging rights

Three feet from the bishop, as my daughters were stepping on each other's toes and saying, "You stop it!" "No, you stop it," I thought, "This would be a great anecdote for our family Christmas letter."

Actually, I was not thinking that at all. What I was thinking is not appropriate for a family newspaper.

But as I drove home from the reception in high fatherly dudgeon, I did think how interesting (by which I mean embarrassing) it would be if we wrote Christmas letters that actually gave people a more well-rounded glimpse of our family's past year.

Someone called Christmas letters "fruitcakes you receive by mail." In most cases, they are not nearly as fun to read as they are to write. The sadist in us keeps writing them, and the masochist in us keeps reading them.

The letters arrive stuffed full of honors programs and dean's lists, winning goals and dance pageants, trips to Orlando and Italy and Maui. Yet I don't think that all of these awards and acclamations are written down simply to make the recipients feel envious of the writer's incredibly good fortune.

I think all of these chronicles are really meant to reassure ourselves that we must be doing something right despite all of the blood-curdling screams, the kicks under the table, the finger squeezing grips-of-death at the Kiss of Peace, the too-many-hours at video games or watching "American Idol" that never make it into our missive.

I've encountered the occasional picture-perfect family once or twice, and I know that most of us think of such families as little Stepford covens.

The children -- at least in public -- behave perfectly. The houses are immaculate. The parents always calm. The hair always brushed.

Families aren't really like that, I tell myself. Odds are at least one member of that brood has gotten head lice or spilled grape juice on a carpet or bitten someone's head off after a bad day.

But we remain haunted by the possibility of perfection. We do it to ourselves. We watch television shows full of ersatz families that have wonderful houses and wonderful parents and children with well-brushed hair. We read articles about these inspiring little nuclear units. We get their Christmas letters. In short, we carry around inside of us the template for the perfect family, a template that ours never fits.

Except for once a year, when we write our own Christmas letter.

I won't say it is fiction, exactly, because every one of our families does things that we can be proud of. Sometimes there is the outstanding performance or the great report card.

Other times, it may be simply surviving with a bit of grace under fire: Parents who make it through the "Goth" phase of black-draped teens who have foresworn smiling for the last 12 months. Older sisters who put up with very irritating little sisters. Families that move to new communities in the middle of the school year. Families that deal with kids who get cut from the team, or parents who get cut from the job. Families that must deal with loneliness and sickness and death.

The thing of it is, often what makes a family most interesting is not all the accomplishments. It's the adversity. It's the conflict. Sometimes it is even the embarrassments.

Families are really little humility factories. We may go to work or church or school and perform our roles with aplomb, but it is in the family where we can't hide the rough edges and the explosions of frustration. Families are where we enjoy the best of times and the worst of times.

It may not make our Christmas letter, but it is the bad as well as the good, the sublime as well as the downright ugly that makes a family.

And when families start telling each other all their stories, maybe we will appreciate ourselves and each other for what we really are -- works in progress.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.