Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Clinging to Christmas

A few months ago, I saw an amazing little film called God Grew Tired of Us. It is the story of The Lost Boys, a group of Sudanese orphaned and displaced young men who fled from the genocide in their country and spent years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before some of the boys were invited to come and live in America. The film chronicles their experience of attempting to assimilate into American culture, which proves to be more challenging than any of the boys ever imagined. One of the scenes that really stuck in my memory involves the boys' initial impressions of their first Christmas in America. I'm unsure of the exact quote, but one of the young men said something to the effect of:

"Your Christmas includes many things which are very beautiful. Trees and lights and music, but I am very confused about what any of this has to do with the birth of Christ."

Ain't it the truth? American Christmas is undeniably lovely and fun, full of traditions, family, and of course, presents. But for those of us parents who consider ourselves to be Christians, it can be immensely challenging to find any meaningful context for the holiday in a culture where Santa and sleigh bells get top billing, particularly when we hope to pass the true significance of the holiday on to our children.

How can Jesus compete? His songs are much trickier for kids to learn than our American holiday standards. Try explaining the lyrics "round yon virgin" to a four year old, and you'll quickly be tempted to turn on "Frosty the Snowman" instead. Jesus doesn't do photo shoots at the mall. He doesn't have a clay-mation holiday special. And he certainly doesn't get to take credit for Barbies and Star Wars action figure sets under the Christmas tree.

Several of our friends have chosen to eliminate Santa from their Christmas celebrations in an attempt to focus the holiday on its true meaning. I definitely understand and respect the sentiment. For our family, however, we finally decided that unless we chose to completely opt out of Christmas gift-giving, the absence of Santa probably wouldn't make a huge difference. And really, Santa's just too much fun for us to pass up. So what else can a well-meaning parent do to help little ones understand that the birth of Christ is ultimately a much more beautiful event than a local tree-lighting ceremony?

We certainly don't have all the answers, but we're trying. For most of Advent, Jonah and I have been reading the Christmas story each afternoon in his children's Bible (and for anyone who is searching for a wonderful Bible for kids, I can't recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible highly enough - its humor and insight are teaching me each day as well!). The boys play with their little wooden Nativity set. We sing carols at church and talk, day by day, about WHY we actually celebrate Christmas. We'll make a cheesy birthday cake for Jesus. And we pray that our boys will truly take in the meaning of my favorite name for Christ - Emmanuel - or "God with us." What could be more beautiful than that?

And maybe, little by little, the real miracle is making itself known. The other day, as we finished reading the story of Jesus' birth for the gazillionth time this month, Jonah turned to me with his eyes sparkling.

"Mom," he grinned, "Jesus is SO cool."

Take that, Santa Claus.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Tyranny of the Christmas Letter

I love getting Christmas cards.  As I write, our pantry door is adorned with a myriad of festive holidays greetings:  adorable family photos, lovely cards, sweet handwritten messages from many of our favorite people.  Who doesn't feel loved when the Christmas cards come flooding into the mailbox?  

However, there's one kind of holiday greeting that can give me, well, mixed feelings:  the Christmas letter.  First, before I offend each of you who might have been kind enough to send me a holiday letter this year or ever, I should preface my comments by fully admitting that I write Christmas letters myself (okay, so the last two years I've been a bit too lazy, but I certainly have in the past), and for the most part, I adore getting them just like all of my other less detailed holiday mail.  It's enjoyable to read the yearly updates from dear friends and family who, unfortunately, live too far away for sufficiently frequent visits.  But the only problem with Christmas letters (my own included) is that they tend to reduce an entire year of living, growing, stumbling, stretching, struggling, striving, and thriving to a few tidy paragraphs of apparent bliss.  In Christmas letters, we all sound wildly successful, incredibly well-adjusted, perfectly behaved, and infinitely happy.  You know the drill:  

"It's been a banner year for the Smith family.  Bob received a phenomenal promotion to CEO of his company, which allows him to work only four hours each week and still make incredible money.   In his spare time, Bob climbed Mount Everest, ran twelve marathons, and saved 27 acres of rainforest in South Amercia.  Little Bobby is the star of his preschool class.  At the age of four, he's already reading Tolstoy, studying precalc, and excelling at Modern Dance and origami." 

I don't think any of us really intend to portray such an abashedly candy-coated view of ourselves.  Maybe we feel insecure about the less glamorous parts of our lives, so we conveniently leave them out of the yearly synopsis.  Maybe we truly look back on the events of months past with rose-colored glasses, minimizing the reality of the tough stuff of life in our own memories.  Maybe the day-to-day challenges just don't strike us as significant enough to include. Whatever the reason, even a quick glance back through some of my own Christmas letters reveals a surprisingly incomplete, if not inauthentic, portrayal of what was truly happening in our hearts, minds, and lives each year.  

These days, I'm trying hard to embrace what is real and true in my world, even when it's not always easy or pretty.  I'm working on figuring out what I genuinely think and feel about things, not just what I think I "should".  So, with that in mind, although I'm not actually sending a Christmas letter this year (just a Christmas ecard that's quickly becoming a New Year's ecard as I procrastinate), here's a sampling of what a truly honest holiday letter might look like for us right now:   

"Kristin truly feels blessed to be able to stay at home with their boys, although they sometimes drive her to the brink of insanity.  While she loves reading, snuggling, and playing pretend games with Jonah and Eli, truth be told, she's not a big fan wrestling.  Kristin began taking Pilates classes this fall, which has been a real joy...unfortunately, she's a bit bitter about the fact that she can't seem to find time for any exercise that doesn't involve chasing small boys.  

Steve likes work these days, but he finds that it seems to get in the way of his climbing time, which in turn sometimes gets in the way of his family time.  This can make Kristin a bit frustrated... we're hoping to find a good balance in this area in 2010.

Jonah, age four, loves preschool and played soccer for the first time this fall.  He keeps us laughing with his expressive vocabulary and dramatic antics, and he also keeps us pulling our hair out when he occasionally still poops his pants or uses his whiney voice too much.  

Eli, at 21 months, is all boy and truly loves life.  If he can get messy and wrestle, he's a happy guy!  This physicality can sometimes be tough for him to control:  we've been warned that if he can't keep his hands to himself and stop hitting other toddlers, we might not be allowed to return to storytime at the library.    

Would I really write all this in a holiday letter?  Probably not.  Right or wrong, I, too, hold onto some inner need to communicate the best of things this time of year.  I guess at its core, Christmas is about hope, about the coming of light into a dark place.  And even when life feels dark, we'll cling to the hope of Christmas and keep on writing the good stuff.