All I Want For Christmas…

Christmas felt different this year. This year, at the age of four, Niko was more aware of the onset of Christmas than previous years yet. For one thing, he understands time a bit better, and the anticipation was agonizing. Grandma and Grandpa’s visit seemed unbearably far away, and, when wrapped gifts finally appeared under the tree, he inquired every day when it would be time to open them. The excitement, the longing, the anticipation — all were new.

This was the first time our son really thought about Christmas in terms of gifts. It was difficult for me, in a way, to see how much space gifts occupied in his mind. My family and my church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all as I was growing up, and I was raised to believe that one of the vices brought by Christmas is the avarice and materialism displayed by overindulgent gift giving. I’ve moved past that particular part of my upbringing, and I love Christmas now — lights, ornaments, gifts, and all. But despite my current embracing of the holiday, I cringed a bit at Niko’s obvious desire and worry that he might not be getting what he wanted. Since he saw some of his baby sister Sofie’s gifts but none of his ahead of time, the accumulation of Sofia’s gifts seemed to far outweigh his, and he was desperately worried that we had forgotten to get him any. On the other hand, his little Christmas list remained modest and consistent. I asked him some time ago what he wanted. His response was prompt and clear: “I want an Olaf snowman and an Olaf book and a toy dog.” Each time afterwards that we asked him for his Christmas list, he repeated the same items with only minimal variation. As anxious as he was over the gifts, he really had only three simple items that he desired.

But it wasn’t all about the anxiety of anticipation. He rejoiced in the colored lights, thrilled at the responsibility of plugging in the tree lights each morning, and delighted in learning Christmas songs at preschool. Opening the doors of the Advent calendar each night (well, many nights — I wasn’t that great at remembering to do it) was a ritual that he loved. In fact, he loves everything about the holiday. He loves the sparkling candles, the colorful ornaments, the hope of snow.

One day Niko, Sofia, and I went shopping at an outdoor mall we’d never visited before, and there was a giant lit tree in the center square with two lovely snow fairies posing for photos with passersby. His eyes lit up with amazement: “FAIRIES! Those are REAL fairies! Can we take a picture of them for Dad?” (His dad travels often, so Niko thinks in terms of taking pictures so Dad can see whatever it is we’re excited about.) He was absolutely amazed, and even more excited when he got to stand by them and have a picture taken. I’m pretty sure that was a highlight of his Christmas.

We saw Santa numerous times over the holiday, and Niko was never quite convinced that it was a person wearing a costume; he hasn’t really accepted our story of a kind man named Nicholas who lived long ago, whom we now remember as Santa Claus. He’s pretty sure Santa is real, and Mom and Dad just haven’t caught on yet. Every time he spied Santa his face would beam with pleasure. “There’s Santa!”

So it wasn’t all about the presents. Not even close. I’ll admit, though, I worried a little that Niko would be so overwhelmed by all the gifts we and his grandparents had gotten for him that he would forget gratitude, that he would become numb to the joy of finding something new in each package. But Niko is the master of being amazed, and he was thrilled with each and every gift.

To my delight,one of his favorite gifts was a fox face cut from an old shirt of his, that I sewed into a pillow and that he’s slept with every night since Christmas. It was inexpertly sewed, but still, the fox was a highlight. About a year ago, that shirt had been almost new. He’d sneaked away with his scissors one day and snipped all over the front of it. When I saw what he’d done, I was upset, and so was he, because he hadn’t realized how destructive the scissors were. He thought he’d never see that fox again. On Christmas Day, when he pulled the fox- shaped pillow out of his stocking, he recognized it right away. He smiled with his entire body as he hugged the little pillow. I guess the reason his pleasure over that pillow delighted me, too, is that it shows he isn’t entirely captivated by shiny new THINGS. He understood the value of the fox pillow immediately; realized that I’d taken something he’d destroyed, and lovingly transformed it into a huggable bedtime cuddle friend.  He understood that the pillow represented time spent, and hard work, and thoughtfulness, and he responded accordingly. His understanding and gratitude are now one of my favorite Christmas memories.

As it turns out, all I really wanted was to see genuine joy on my son’s face. I saw that, and suddenly all my worries about materialism and avarice evaporated. Watching open his Christmas presents was the most fun I can think of!

Here are some of Niko’s amazed faces:

Backsliding Into Worldly Depravity

Yup, that’s me. Backslider. Depraved. Worldly. Actually, the “backslider” label may be inaccurate. You can’t backslide into new territory. No, this is much worse. Tumbling headlong into sin is more like it.

When I was a kid, living on one of a trio of Christian communes in Northwest Ontario, we did not do Halloween. We regarded those who did with a sort of fascinated horror. Christmas and Easter were Paganism-tainted, worldly holidays which we also did not celebrate – along with birthdays – but those at least were fairly innocent and had a religious slant. Halloween had no such excuse. It was, to our sheltered eyes, the embodiment of Satan-worshiping evil. I mean, those kids actually dressed as ghosts, goblins, and witches. They were practically inviting demons to possess their souls.

It started slowly: “gradualism,” the preachers of my youth would say (probably are saying right now, if any of them see this). Living in Anchorage, Aaron and I would buy candy just in case trick-or-treaters came by. We didn’t want to disappoint any kids, after all. Then, when I started teaching, I saw how much my students loved Halloween. I didn’t want to disappoint them, either, and since other teachers were allowing costumes on that day, I did too — and bought a green-feathered witch hat which I donned each year so as not to appear unpleasantly strait-laced. Then, Niko arrived, and we were given the cutest little Winnie-the-Pooh costume for him. Who could resist that? The following year we actually purchased a dinosaur costume; last year, a robot. And this year, we entirely succumbed.

Three nights ago, we dressed both of our innocent children in Disney-inspired costumes and joined friends (one of the nicest families I know, who are — incidentally — faithfully church-attending people) to trick-or-treat in their neighborhood. It was…well, fun. No goblins assaulted us. No witches hexed us. Not a single soul became demon-possessed. In fact, everyone we met, at homes and on the street, were remarkably polite and kind.

We had a tense moment when we encountered a snazzily dressed skeleton with a cane and top hat, his skull leering menacingly. The little boys, aged four and three, froze as Baron Samedi and his family approached. His wife poked his arm. “You’re scaring those kids! You have to take your mask off!” “Oh, no!” he said with genuine concern. “No, I don’t want to scare anyone!” And despite the effort he’d exerted to make a convincing Baron, the skeleton immediately pushed his mask up to the top of his head, transforming from a dark lord of death into a cheerful man in a colorful suit, smiling sheepishly at us.  He kept his mask off the rest of the time we were out.

No, we weren’t hauled off to the realms of death. We weren’t lured into a Satanic ritual. We just enjoyed the fresh air, collected treats, and walked to a nearby church for their Halloween/harvest festival. The boys went crazy in a bounce house while the babies stared at the crowds with wide eyes. And on the way home our family stopped for groceries, where cashiers and customers ooooh’d and ahhhh’d over the fairy princess and little pirate. Our kids were just as innocent, but better-exercised, at the end of the night as they’d been before donning their costumes.

Yes, this year I embraced worldly depravity with a will. And as I watched my son marching up to the doors of strangers with his lantern-lit pumpkin basket (courtesy of our generous friends) glowing bravely, I was so glad I did.