William wakes up from his nap and says, “Mom, I want to talk.”
He is in his crib, surrounded by his “sleep stuff,” which includes two pacifiers, a stuffed giraffe, and a blue and green patchwork blanket. His hair sticks up at odd angles, and his eyes are a bit puffy. But the expression on his face tells me he has an agenda.
I settle myself in the chair across the room, resting my hands on my rapidly expanding midsection, and say, “What do you want to talk about?”
I shouldn’t be surprised, even though we haven’t made it to Thanksgiving yet. Talking about Santa has become a ritual. Every afternoon I lumber upstairs to find my son contentedly awake after two hours of deep sleep. When I come in, he doesn’t want to get out of his crib. Rather, he’s ready to chat. Often his questions head toward Santa, presents, elves, reindeer, and the North Pole. Then he returns to Santa and presents.
Today, as usual, I try to reframe the narrative. “You know, William, at Christmas, it’s Jesus’ birthday. We give presents to celebrate because Jesus was born, and Jesus loves us.”
“Oh.” He sucks on his pacifier for a moment, as if I have just offered new information, and then asks, “Does Santa love me?”
I put my hand to my mouth to cover my smile, but he is pondering the answer and doesn’t notice. As much as I enjoy indulging William’s imagination, I am also starting to sympathize with the Reformation sects that refused to celebrate Christmas. Apparently, even in the sixteenth century, this holiday seemed disconnected enough from its spiritual underpinnings for some Christians to abandon it altogether. At times I am tempted to do the same. For years now, I’ve had an internal battle waging over the nature of Christmas, and bringing kids into the picture has only made it feel more complicated.
Emphasizing the Sacred
When I first got married, I asked my mother for my box of Christmas ornaments. Peter and I lived in a shotgun apartment with twelve-foot ceilings, and I insisted on an eleven-foot tree for our first Christmas together. We hung the lights and filled in less than half of the available branch space with memories of my childhood—school photos in Popsicle-stick frames, needlepointed angels from my godmother, brass sleighs, glass baubles. But then we left for ten days. We returned after New Year’s, with a lot of decorations to put away and a floor full of dry pine needles.
The next year, I decided a tree wasn’t worth the effort if we wouldn’t enjoy it on Christmas morning anyway. In the years that followed, sometimes I bought a wreath. Sometimes I hung the angels over the fireplace. But for the most part, I avoided the decorating and the baking associated with the long run up to December 25. It all seemed like a waste—of time, money, calories—and it seemed only barely related to a celebration of Jesus’ birth.
But every Christmas, even as a married adult, I also gladly walked through the door of my childhood home, where my mother had been busily baking and decorating for weeks. There were the carolers in the front hallway—a different one to represent each member of the family. The little painted wooden snow scene in the window. Red bows on every closet door. Mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Christmas china on the open shelves in the kitchen. Kooky cake and ham rolls and spinach casserole for the annual neighborhood Christmas party. “Joy to the World” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “Good King Wenceslas” playing round the clock. It was a time for feasting and celebration, and even though I often wondered what peppermint ice cream and garlands had to do with a baby born in Bethlehem, I loved it.
I finally decided that Christmas should be divided into two categories—“American Christmas” and “Christian Christmas.” American Christmas involved Santa Claus and presents and eggnog and tinsel. Christian Christmas began with the mournful expectation of Advent and led to our celebration of Jesus’ life. It made me feel better to divorce the two even as I decided to celebrate both.
When our kids were born, I continued to divvy up Christmas into my self-created sacred and secular categories. I tried to emphasize the sacred. The stuffed Nativity scene placed in the center of our playroom provided hours of entertainment. I wouldn’t allow the kids to toss the baby, but the sheep and the donkeys were fair game. Someone sent us a sticker Advent series in which we read a portion of the Christmas story each day and placed a corresponding sticker on a scene that culminated, of course, in the babe lying in a manger. We sang “Christmas church songs” before bed, and one afternoon I overheard Penny singing, “God and sinners reconciled!” as we walked to the playground. Christian Christmas was sinking in.
It wasn’t as easy for me to muster the energy or organizational effort for American Christmas. No carolers or festive china or place mats decorated with wreaths and snowmen. No glitzy bows. No “White Christmas” playing in the background. I put off shopping for so long that I often found myself up late, clicking on items online, paying extra for two-day shipping.
But festive place mats or not, there was Santa, who provoked fear and trembling in Penny and adoration in William. Penny asked about Santa all year round—whether to make sure he would stay put at the North Pole or in hopes that he might make a surprise early visit, I’m not sure. William homed in on all the details—Mrs. Claus, the size of the sleigh, the location of the factory. I started to worry that my kids loved Santa more than Jesus, that, despite all my efforts, American Christmas had gotten the best of us too.
The Embodiment of Celebration
Then comes this year, when I am pregnant for the third time and William can’t stop asking about Santa’s undying love for him. In December, Penny comes home from school one day singing and dancing to “Jingle Bell Rock.” They have a performance coming up, and she practices daily. She knows every motion, and she sings loud and clear, if somewhat off-key. Her face is aglow with the light of a child who couldn’t be more content or more excited.
It is at that moment that I start to wonder whether American Christmas and Christian Christmas are more closely related than I had suspected.
I think back to the way Jesus’ birth upended traditional assumptions that the spiritual world and the physical world must remain distinct spheres. Jesus’ birth signaled the entrance of God into time and space. And despite Jesus’ condemnation of evil, his life attests to his ongoing affirmation of the goodness of our physical reality. This is the man who changed water into wine so the party could continue. This is the man who commended a woman for pouring expensive perfume on his feet. The man who held the children on his lap rather than keeping them at a distance. The man who healed through touch and not just powerful words.
Christmas celebrates material reality, through gifts and glitter and extravagance. When we place the Nutcracker characters on the branches of our tree, when we bake molasses spice cookies, when we dress up in fancy clothes, we are acknowledging a spiritual truth made manifest on Christmas morn. We are participating in God’s declaration that this world matters enough to enter into it, to upend the evil within it, to hold tight to the good, forever.
So first I concede that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to start collecting Christmas ornaments. Embracing gift giving seems the next logical step, but I’m weary of our stuff. I don’t want my kids to feel entitled to the new bike or book or toy. I don’t want to fill another bin with items to give away. I think perhaps we should all pull names out of a hat and only give one gift apiece, or give the money to charity, or forget about presents altogether and just enjoy Christmas Day as a family.
Even as I entertain these possibilities, I keep circling back to the thought that gift giving is good. I know—buying my sister a sweater is a poor reflection of the gift God gave us in sending Jesus, but at least it’s a tangible reminder of generosity.
And Christmas is also about receiving gifts. Instead of purchasing what I want for myself, I submit to what someone else wants me to have. At least in theory, receiving gifts prompts a recognition of all the things in life that come, not because of hard work or because we deserve it, but simply because we are loved. My children, who have no income, who depend on us for each bite of food and each piece of clothing and toy and book and game, know how to receive gifts. With simple joy. With great delight. With gratitude. The same way I want to receive God’s gifts to me.
Which brings me to the final way my attitude has changed when it comes to Christmas. Perhaps because the theology of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” contrasts so starkly with the vacuous lyrics of “Holly Jolly Christmas,” it was “secular” Christmas music that got me most of all.
Until Penny comes home singing “Jingle Bell Rock” with all her heart. And I realize there is no dividing line for her. Shaking those sleigh bells and belting out those lyrics are part of the celebration. After all, without Jesus’ birth, there would be no reason to throw a party. It strikes me again that the whole point of Christmas, theologically speaking, is that the abstract became physical, the conceptual became concrete. For my children, for myself, it’s important to celebrate Christmas, not only through words and hymns and spiritual practices, but through the embodiment of celebration and delight, through cookie swaps and presents around the tree and wreaths on the door. And, yes, through “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Presents for Jesus
A few days after Penny’s holiday concert at school, we attend the early evening service at church. Peter roams the hallways with the kids, who have managed to sit still through two carols but not the Scripture reading. In the dim light of the sanctuary, I hear the story again, the story of a young girl entrusted with the Son of God, the story of shepherds awoken by glory, the story of the humble beginnings of a baby boy who would change the world and change my life. I rest my hands on my belly, that orb containing the life soon to be given to us. My family returns for “Silent Night,” each person holding a candle, the whole room flickering with gentle light.
When we get home, Penny helps me read a child’s version of the Christmas story out loud. As we narrate, William places each of the Nativity scene characters throughout the room for the rest of the relatives to see. First he perches an angel on the back of a wing chair. Then Mary, Joseph, and the donkey in the center of the coffee table. Then the animals and the shepherds on the floor around the table, the manger with the baby Jesus on the table itself. At the very end, as Penny and I read about the wise men, William lays two large American Girl dolls at the foot of the manger.
We all giggle, but then William, serious as can be, explains, “They are the presents from the wise men for baby Jesus.”
He and Penny then lead us in a rollicking rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and we bring out a cake. We all eat our fill.
We set out the cookies and milk for Santa. We leave the manger scene in its place.
We celebrate Christmas.
Adapted from Small Talk by Amy Julia Becker. Copyright © 2014. Used by permission of Zondervan.