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Christmas through the eyes of a child is always the best view. It’s not that the view is particularly clear, historic or even accurate. Christmas, as we know it today, has been a process of accumulation over generations. Ancient celebrations of seasonal change rooted in early ideas of the natural world were captured centuries ago by the Christian church seeking to redeem the holiday for a holy purpose. The last century has added a spirit of gift-giving leading to enthusiastic shoppers lining store aisles and surfing retail websites. These days, of course, unbridled consumerism at Christmas is an act of patriotism. Given the blending of so many historic contexts into one holiday, perhaps Christmas should come with a label that reads, “Some assembly required.”
The genius of childhood is that at an early age we simply accept what is presented without much need for historic explanation. Given the history of Christmas, this is a good thing. For young children, the living room suddenly grows a tree with sparkling ornaments, a nativity scene appears on the coffee table, and presents with colorful wrapping are stacked on the floor – none of which can be touched. This is where the challenging confusion begins and the easy answers end.
My toys are colorful just like the ornaments. I can play with my toys, but not with the ornaments. Throwing either of them will land me in a time-out.
I have a doll about the same size as the shepherd, but placing him in my house made of blocks gets me in trouble.
People laugh and cheer when I tear the paper off a box at my birthday, but these colorful boxes must belong to the tree.
It’s a wonder with all the childhood questions and unique (sometimes conflicting) family traditions, Christmas, as a holiday, has held together at all. I think the finesse of parents in covering childhood confusion at Christmas should probably be the basis for a new awards ceremony, maybe even a new reality TV show – “Survivor: Christmas.”
Some years ago, a colleague was telling me a story about her son, Max. He was at that magical age when awareness of surroundings leads to constant questions. This was the first Christmas he was old enough to question what he was seeing. As the holiday approached, his mom began decorating the house. All the decorations were placed appropriately including the Christmas stockings she had hung above the couch. Eventually, Max came bounding into the living room, but stopped dead in his tracks. With eyes peering at the wall he blurted out, “Whose socks are these?”
The existence of Santa Claus is also a tenuous path for parents. In this business timing is everything. Many years ago some friends were taking their daughter to see Santa for the first time. With Grandma and Grandpa present to share in the conspiracy and photography, she stepped forward bravely to ascend the steps to an enormous chair, a large lap and a friendly smile. As she turned to face Santa, her grandfather held up a sign with her name printed in large letters, big enough for even the Jolly-Old-Elf to see clearly. When Santa greeted her so personally, she turned to her family with big eyes, and in an eager whisper said, “He knows my name!” The remaining acts in the play included stamping boot prints in the fireplace ashes, spreading reindeer food on the frosty lawn and consuming the cookies and cocoa left by a kind heart for a weary traveler.
For older kids, things begin to change. Word problems in math class give rise to questions about the airspeed of reindeer, the population of the world and the weight and volume of gifts. For many, the magical gives way to the spiritual as the ambiguities of the religious and secular dimensions of the holiday are more intellectually tolerable. Yet even with the consistent discussions about the meaning of Christmas, this young group cares mostly about the rules. Is it stockings-only on Christmas Eve? Can we open one present before we go to bed? How early can we get up? How come he has one more gift than I do? The best advice is to always establish clear Christmas ground rules and stick with them.
By the time we reach late adolescence, we have become adept at integrating our ideas about Christmas. The symbols become a bit clearer. Gift giving is better understood in the context of God’s greatest gift to humanity. The joy on the faces of others who receive what we have offered brings as much delight as the gifts we receive. Yet the intensity of shopping inevitably leads to cutting deals. The new approach begins with the question, “What kind of budget are we planning for Christmas this year?” I think I may need a consultant to get through this. Christmas lists at this age are carefully crafted and highly strategic. I swear teenagers attend seminars about creating the most effective lists. I see URLs for specific retail websites, exact specifications (brand, size, color, model and special instructions), and price comparisons are more common. I have to say Christmas shopping these days is more about execution than planning. The cynic in me says it’s all about the loot. But perhaps we are experiencing a clarity of purpose. As the materialistic aspects of Christmas are becoming more transactional, perhaps we are open to a more important focus on that which is spiritual.
At this stage of my life, I find myself somewhat passive about Christmas. There is really not much I am seeking through the experience of the holiday, and to be honest, that aspect is a bit liberating. My expectations are relatively low and a quiet, simple Christmas with our daughters seems just fine. Still, I can’t help wondering what will happen to me if one day I have grandchildren. Will I want to spoil those kids with more than they should have? Will I be telling endless stories about Christmas traditions in our family? Will I be the guy holding the sign with the name of that grandchild clearly visible?
You bet I will.