Christmas morning! The kids run into the room screaming. Presents! Cousins are coming! Lulie’s house! It may or may not still be dark outside. They jump up onto the bed, which isn’t easy when you’re carrying your weight in cozy blankets and pillows. I want to pull the sheet over and pretend I can’t see or hear them. My wife, who sleeps with earplugs and an eye mask inside an impenetrable igloo of covers, actually can’t. But their excitement is endearing, if not quite infectious. We’ve been counting down the days for a month, and now the moment has arrived. So I smile. I love seeing their joy. It’s the only gift I really want.
Christmas morning is a magical time for a child. I would never want to take it away, even if I’d rather they didn’t get a ton of plastic they may never use. But that’s my adult sensibility talking. I know it’s better for them not to eat more chocolate, too, but I still give them treats because I can’t turn down their pleading faces and because I know, in a place I can no longer reach on my own, that their smile is more important than their cholesterol.
They have to learn the big lessons before they can appreciate the little rules. Habits can have a powerful effect on our behavior and thinking, but requiring good habits without offering wisdom or grace is how we raise up healthy moralizers and disaffected rebels. So it’s fine to enforce eating vegetables, but it will never be more than coercion without a proper understanding of health. It’s good to learn to say thank you, but that itself does not teach gratitude. It may be more beneficial to desire books and learning than toys and pleasures, but we can’t love anything without first having loved something. What will we have to give if we have not first learned to receive?
The Christmas story is not one of giving but of receiving. In it, we play the role of the child, receiving gifts without needing to give anything in return except our joy. The people then, like now, had slipped into a petty legalism and a dispiriting licentiousness. Like us, they were very careful to say the right words, to eat the right foods, to give the right gifts, to support the right causes, and (most importantly) to oppose the right people. But they’d lost sight of the purpose of these rules and so followed them for habit or sport or personal triumph or political gain. Jesus came to free us from the rules we try to enforce and call us back to the lessons from which those behaviors should flow, wellness, health, gratitude, grace, humility, faith, and love. He did this by giving us himself, descending to the level of a child, to resolve the wrongs that had come between us and so open up a relationship with the source of all good. It was the greatest of gifts to us, his children.
So maybe material presents don’t excite you anymore. Good for you, all grown up, but you can still take joy in the gift of life that came this day. It should be joy like that of a child. If you need a reminder of how to do it, they’ll be jumping on your bed and sitting at the foot of the tree.