A few days ago, a friend asked if I had some thoughts on how to make Christmas more meaningful for our children. I sent her the article on Advent I wrote a few weeks ago and have since spent some time thinking about how I do it for my children.
We begin by space-clearing. We give away toys, clothes, and other things we no longer use but may be enjoyed by others. I do this a few times during the year but every December, the children do their share. My boys have become experts at space-clearing and seem able to give more and more each year. On the first or second week of December, I bring a big box up to their room and they do the rest without complaint. I’m there simply to put toys with little parts together and to make sure sets are packed together neatly so that the recipients get everything in one piece. I am always proud that my boys give so freely. This clearing of the old in the spirit of sharing is how our holiday season officially begins. I think it is a good, no-fuss way to prepare both inwardly and externally for the season.
Without burdening the children with adult talk and abstract moralizing, they feel the mood behind this gesture of letting go of the old and making space for the new. It is a simple and straightforward message that sits at the heart of the season. It could mean clearing the toy bin to make space for new presents. It could mean clearing our inner spaces of old and destructive thoughts and habits to allow the spirit and light of the Christ to shine again within. Every year the message changes for them, depending on their level of understanding. It changes for me, too, depending on where I am in my life.
This year I have asked relatives to keep the gifts simple. Christmas in our society has become a “festival of more” and I have to make sure that is not what my children are getting. If our children get one gift from every relative and friend, they are receiving more than enough. A friend recently shared how she has seen children ripping open presents, throwing them off to the side, and then going for the next one with alarming speed. What is this “more” they are getting? I shudder at the long-term moral repercussions. Giving them too many presents doesn’t necessarily make for a better Christmas, especially if you want your children to grow up to be responsible, conscientious, un-materialistic human beings. It teaches them to expect more material things each year but it does nothing for the healthy development of their feeling life. Before you know it, one present – no matter how perfect — will not be enough and they will no longer appreciate or recognize the true essence of things.
I am happy that I am bringing back the tradition of anticipation and quiet waiting during the holiday season. It is the opposite of what the malls would have us do, but I know it is the right thing. I was recently asked if my children could please open one gift early because it is a toy that will take some time to assemble and my children are leaving for the beach the day after Christmas. They would not have time to enjoy it. I had to explain that it is good for the children to wait. It teaches them to be patient and strong. It makes them experience delayed gratification. These are true inner gifts that will serve them well later in life. Presents are not what Christmas is about and if we, as adults, put our emphasis on that, our children will imbibe the same attitude towards the season.
On Christmas morning, when my children see the Christ-child in the manger of our nativity table, they will know that the right time for opening the presents has come. We will enter the room where the Christmas tree will be lit with real candles and adorned with fresh roses and gingerbread cookies. They will listen to a Christmas story and sing a few carols. There is a picture that forms in them of what this season is about, year after year. The patient waiting is part of it and I don’t think any gift is worth taking that shortcut. If we make allowances today next year, if they ask to open a present early, we will no longer have the moral authority to tell them it is better to wait.
Every year I learn something new about the season. I read, I plan and take part in festivals within my community and make sure that the children participate, so that our experience of Christmas (and the other Christian festivals) becomes richer by the year. It starts with us. Whatever we carry in our hearts of what this season means, is what it’s going to be for our children. I grew up feeling that Christmas was a time of darkness, brokenness and depression. That is one side of it, as we all feel, but that is not the full picture. The Christ chose to come into the world during this time precisely so that he could bring light during the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is important that our children get that picture, too, without us going preachy and dramatic on them.
It is becoming more difficult to go against the overwhelming tide of commercialism. Through the chaos, the task of creating a well of silence becomes the ultimate challenge. I buy all the presents and wrap them myself. I handwrite all my Christmas cards with personal messages for every recipient. I do this with care and pay attention to the thoughts I carry as I tie a bow, seal an envelope, make a crease, and fill a card with my personal holiday blessings. The very act of consciously and lovingly thinking of another as we prepare our Christmas offering is the true present. The gift—whatever it is—is only its physical expression.
Last week, a fire broke out a few houses away from our school. Three members of our school community lost everything they had. The parent text brigade worked full force as we rallied to help them. I was surprised that although I thought I had already cleared my closet, I still had a lot to give with much more to spare. Although I have been budgeting with more skill than I thought I had, I had more than enough funds to share. People came with clothes, beddings, cash and offers to house our teachers—friends who were suddenly homeless.
The other day I noticed a letter of thanks posted on the school bulletin board, written by Grace, our former school doctor, one of the three who thankfully survived the fire. I share her diary entry the night after the fire: “…I am tired but alright, thankful to be alive. The fire ate up only the physical-material, whose absence only emphasized how little one actually needs to live on—food, clothes, toiletries, a roof over one’s head. Really, very little of the things that can be measured. What is important are family and friends who, in time of one’s greatest need, say ‘It’s alright, we’re here. We will help you.’” I stood before the message long after I finished reading it. I felt it was a gift to me and I hurriedly sought permission to share it with you.
As I go about my holiday preparations, thinking of the people in my life and choosing presents I feel would be useful, helpful, appropriate, funny or appreciated, I know what Grace said is what I am saying, too. With every gift, I say “I am here and I see you”, because every year at Christmas, I take the time to see everyone clearly and with warmth again. As I wrap each present and write a Christmas message, I am thinking of each person in a very conscious way. Gift-giving at Christmas is a gesture of coming full circle for each other, even if we don’t agree or like each other all the time, are apart or rarely even have the time to chat. We are here.
If we carry this message inwardly through the frenzy of the holidays, we are already making Christmas meaningful for the children. It takes effort to go against the tide, but I find that every step I take towards simplifying my Christmas enhances our appreciation for the season. When the Christ came to bring light into the earth during the darkest time of humanity, isn’t that what he said? I am here. No matter the depth of darkness, the world can be made whole again, should we choose it. We only need to peel away the layers to see that the Christ is in all of us and spreading his timeless message in word and deed, is what Christmas is about. By taking this to heart, we bring it to life for our children again.