When my children were young, my brother always put together their ‘Santa’ gifts at his house and drove them over on Christmas Eve late, to be sure they were asleep. If we had snow on Christmas morning, my kids checked out front for Santa’s footsteps; and my brother always munched on the reindeer’s carrots, ate the cookies and drank the milk they had left out for Santa. This was such a gift to me and the kids, and it was a gift to him, also, because he had not been a part of his daughter’s life. These are precious memories for me.
My children attended Catholic school, where every year a Secret Santa gifting took place but, of course, the emphasis was on Christ’s birthday. Advent is the solemn (approximate) month-long period in the Catholic Church prior to the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, when Catholics prepare themselves through inner reflection and confession to be worthy to commemorate the birth of God’s son. And, through my kids’ school, each year a large Christmas production took place, thanks to Mrs. Schweitzer, with every child in costume, from first graders as angels to the eighth graders as shepherds and wise men and other witnesses. Elizabeth and Zacharias (John the Baptist’s parents), and Joseph and Mary were the starring roles, and a hopefully-quiet newborn was chosen to be baby Jesus. I cried every year, the message brought home to my heart, “Truly, His birth was a miracle.” My mom a;ways came and these are also precious memories for me.
Thus, we have the two faces of Christmas: the must-have gifts and the shopping mania, which I have participated in, though I never grabbed anything from or elbowed another shopper; and the quiet birth of a God-and-human baby at which angels were present, singing hallelujah to God. I tried to make some sense of this by buying an ornament for our tree with Santa kneeling before Christ’s cradle and telling my children that St. Nicholas brought gifts to people to help us remember and celebrate God’s gift of baby Jesus to us. But once their belief in Santa fell away and they grew older, their requests for gifts became much more specific and determined. They still knew we were celebrating Jesus’ birth, but it became really hard not to want the same things the kids from wealthy families had. (My sons are in college now and have been figuring out on their own what is important in life. My daughter still attends Catholic school because other kind parents pay for her to go. She does pretty good at knowing what is necessary and/or important, though at times it is hard.)
The thing is, I loved being Santa (or at least Mrs. Claus), and participating in my children’s excitement built around the whole mystery of the unseen, ever-reliable, bearded gift-bringer who flew around the world in one night on a sleigh led by reindeer, carrying a bottomless bag of toys. How fun! Celebrating Christ’s birth is a whole other experience, one which is felt in the heart at certain moments, perhaps at the telling of the tender story of His birth, the hearing or singing of a Christmas hymn we all know the words to, or buying gifts or donating food for people who live in poverty. We are likely to feel His presence in prayer or meditation, or at church for those who attend.
I don’t know why Christmas became such a grand wanting and shopping experience, other than shopping seems the way America has gone. At least we finally seem to be realizing ‘stuff’ isn’t enough and that we all are longing for something real, something with a meaningful essence, which is where God, in all His or Her forms, comes in. Merry Christmas to my fellow Christians and Happy Holidays to all others who are remembering the goodness of God during this winter season.