Jim Mullen

Before Christmas rolls around, you'll probably read 50 different recipes for making the "perfect turkey" in newspapers and magazines. You'll see another 50 on the morning TV shows and on the cooking channels. Between Thanksgivings and Christmases, I've eaten well over 100 turkey dinners in my life. Not once have I ever heard a guest stand up and say, "That was horrible. That wasn't a perfect turkey. How dare you cook something like that. I'll never eat here again!" As a matter of fact, that's probably why turkey has become so popular for the holidays: It's hard to mess up. Even imperfect turkeys taste pretty good. Besides, when did perfection become the goal instead of having a good time, instead of enjoying your company?

My Dad used to get up on a rickety ladder and spend a few hours each year putting up a simple string of colored lights on our front porch every Christmas. The bulbs were bulky and ugly compared to the kind you can buy today, and if one light on the string went out, they all went out. It was a tedious all-day affair to find out which bulb had burned out. After my sixth or seventh sibling showed up, he even didn't bother with the outside of the house. Yet all those years, no one ever knocked on our front door and said, "What's with the pathetic light show? You guys aren't even trying. They guy down the street, his are perfect." All the perfect guy's kids were at our house, making a mess, enjoying not being perfect.

Now, when I drive past one of those overdecorated houses with computer coordinated light displays that you can see from outer space, all I can think is, "If they have the time and money to do that, they must not have children." Or not enough of them, anyway.

Our tree was the opposite of the perfect trees you will see in the magazines, yet I don't remember anyone remarking "Why, that's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. It looks like you let a bunch of little kids decorate it!" It never occurred to us that it wasn't perfect.

My mother was big on watering the tree every day. "That way," she explained, "it will live longer." For years, I thought that adding water to things would keep them alive. Dead dog, add water. Dead fish, add water. It was a long time before I realized that cutting down the tree was what killed it, not a lack of water. When they found my grandfather, they never figured out why the carpet around his body was so wet.

My grandfather always gave me a brand new wallet each Christmas. I don't know what he thought I needed one for when I was 6. My driver's license? Not the perfect gift, but I remember it still.

Mom tried a new recipe one year for fruitcake. She knew no one really liked fruitcake, so she found this recipe that was all dried fruit and nuts and no cake. I don't remember what held it all together, I think she just threw candied fruit and nuts into a bubbling pot of corn syrup and cooked until it fused together, like molten glass. To get a piece small enough to eat, you had to shatter it with a hammer. It never stopped us from eating them. They weren't perfect, but no one complained.

Television at Christmas was unwatchable. Choir music instead of cartoons? What adult thought that was a good idea? One channel didn't even want to go to the expense of a choir. It trained a camera on a burning log in a fireplace all day long. Riveting stuff compared to what was on the only other two channels. After nine hours of choir came "An Accordion Christmas" and then "How to Knit a Perry Como Sweater."

Today, my basic cable package has 180 channels. It's not enough, so I pay extra for the movie channels and sports. But there are only three channels I watch with any regularity. It's not perfect, but I may watch the burning log this year. It's on channel 589.