Photography by Andy Coan

In my mind’s eye I see her: She’s the perfect Christmas woman.

She is wearing an elegant ensemble with glittering gems gracing her ears. Her home is perfumed with the sumptuous scent of gingerbread men. They are stunningly shaped and hand-decorated, of course.

On the mantel of this perfect woman are jaunty boughs, festooned with regal red ribbons; nearby looms a towering tree laden with lavish lights.

Then there is me.

My gingerbread men emerge from the oven misshapen and morose, often missing a limb or two. My packages look like they were wrapped by a demented elf.

And, just between you and me, my boughs are sagging.

But, oh, how desperately I long to count myself among the perfect Christmas women! You know the ones I mean: the ladies who graduated magna cum laude from the Martha Stewart College of holiday design.

Something, though, has gone horribly wrong. You see, I’m the lady in the grocery store a week after Christmas, pawing through the sale cards, and rushing to get them in the mail. And when it comes to making gift tags with glue-guns, I flunked the midterm.

In my defense, however, I am rather proud of our artificial Christmas tree, which we adopted a few years ago from a neighbor’s trash heap. True, it is merely two feet high and a bit frayed around the edges, but at least it doesn’t expect me to water it.

And on our mantel is a nice crèche that my husband created from old lumber scraps. Problem is, he never got around to fashioning Mary, Joseph, and the baby, so it looks a bit bare.

To be perfectly honest, my biggest fear is that one of the perfect Christmas women will drop in during the holiday season. I can just see her wincing when I serve her eggnog from a carton.

I can imagine her glancing at the tree ornaments with disdain, especially when she notices the stuffed moose and the grinning squirrel. And when I bring out the platter of headless gingerbread men, she might run screaming away.

Every year, I promise myself that things will be different. I will start in the summer, sewing pillow cases for the children and knitting gorgeous garments for the adults on my list.

But let’s get real: This isn’t going to happen. You see, I’m the one who sewed the pockets on the wrong side of a skirt in high-school sewing class.  And when it comes to knitting, even my scarves turn out crooked.

This year, I can predict what will happen come Christmas Day. I will walk into church like I always do, feeling like the biggest loser of all times.

All around me will be evidence of perfect Christmas women. There will be pots of poinsettias precisely parked on the altar. Children decked out in hand-knit sweaters with matching caps. And the ladies themselves splendid in their opulent outfits of silk and satin.

When Mass is over, I will tiptoe toward the crèche to behold the simple scene: Mary and Joseph kneeling by the baby, while the animals gather around.

And if I’m very fortunate, at that point, there may come a moment of grace.

My thoughts will travel back in time to Mary, who surely longed for a perfect setting for her newborn son. Perhaps she envisioned a lush and cozy inn with the scent of spicy pastries perfuming the rooms. Instead, she settled for the stable, messy and dark, and smelling strongly of sheep.

And then I see the truth: I will never be the perfect Christmas woman. My gingerbread men will always be lopsided, and my trees will bring tears to the eyes of Santa’s elves.

None of this matters, though, as I stand before the crèche.

In my mind’s eye, I see Mary placing her baby in my arms. I glimpse the mysterious light in his eyes as I shift his warm body close to me. Then I lean down and kiss him, ever so gently, and whisper that I love him.

And even if I get everything else wrong at Christmas, maybe through the grace of God I will get this right.

Lorraine’s latest mystery is “Death of a Liturgist,” a wild romp through a traditional parish that is hijacked by a man who wants everyone to feel groovy at Sunday Mass. She also has written “Death in the Choir” and five other books.

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