In mere hours, Christmas will be over. The wrapping paper will be thrown away, the leftovers will be in the freezer, and the relatives will go home. What will remain of the weeks of effort and anticipation? What will children remember most about this holiday? In thirty years, they won’t be able to tell you what was in all those boxes under the tree, but they will recall how they felt at Christmas.
This time of year throws emotions into stark relief. If there isn’t enough money, it hurts the most right now, when people feel they can’t provide the gifts their loved ones deserve. If relationships are strained, it’s most apparent now, when siblings, step-siblings, and in-laws get together. Some gather joyfully, but many grit teeth to tolerate one another. If we are floundering along in life, or simply unconventional, we may have to explain ourselves to ancient Aunt Mavis. If we are missing someone, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is on an endless loop in our heads. We have been so busy preparing for the big day that by the time it gets here, we are tired, short tempered, and tempted to take the edge off with too much nog.
It can be a tough day, especially for us parents. We want to think that, since we just spent hundreds of dollars on new toys for these kids, the least they could do is entertain themselves for a while. But we know better than that. Placing the gifts under the tree is not the finish line. It’s us playing with them with their new toys that counts. Children will remember the way Christmas felt much more vividly than they will remember the specific gifts. I only remember three presents from the eighteen Christmases I spent at home with my parents, a stereo, complete with turn table and eight track player, and a ballerina doll that spun around, both notable for their unexpected extravagance. Then there was the coat, which I remember because I was so disappointed it wasn’t a toy.
What sticks with me from those years is the glorious hilarity of playing games and spending time with my sisters. Thirteen and fifteen years older than me, they would come home for the holiday, later bringing husbands and then their own children. I idolized them and I’m sure I bugged them to death, but their kindness and compassion was bottomless. I remember sitting on the floor playing the card game “spoons,” howling with laughter as my sisters pretended to fight over the last spoon. I remember a marathon of Monopoly that must have taken hours. They gently explained the game to me and helped me count my earnings. I remember feeling loved and cherished by them, and I marvel now at the patience and good humor they gave me. I also remember visits from rarely seen aunts, uncles, and much older cousins who somehow found time to hold a conversation with me that made me feel important.
What do the children at our holiday gathering really want for Christmas? Us. They want us to look at them and listen to them and talk to them. More than anything else on the planet, they want our undivided attention. When a child asks “Do you want to hear me sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?’ our answer must be “Yes.” And to “Do you want to hear me sing it again?” the answer is also “Yes.” We are to sit through the entire song without looking away or checking our watches. If we can be the kind of person who does that, we will be their hero. We might even be too busy with them to explain to Aunt Mavis why we aren’t married yet. Don’t be too distracted or wrapped up in your own problems not to tell a child why he is wonderful and amazing. That little gift of time and attention is free, and priceless. No toy in the world can replace it. It seems there are a million things we want and need to do, but nothing is more important or will last longer than giving a child our focus. We have it within our power to implant indelible memories of the truly magical wonder of Christmas.
Children also want the adults around them to be happy, or at least do a good job of pretending to be. No matter how many iPads or Xboxes Santa left under the tree, if the grownups were in a bad mood the whole time, nursing grudges and plotting revenge, it was a lousy Christmas. We adults set the tone for the children and they will look to us to find out whether things are going well. Pretend they are, even if they aren’t. Don’t be rude back to anyone. You may find you start to believe it a little bit yourself. Find a way to be happy while listening to that reindeer song or the child will begin to believe that it’s his fault you’re miserable.
Christmas really is for children. We work hard all year, saving and shopping, wrapping and baking, to create the scene. I hope to remember that it is the time and attention that goes with the gifts that matters most in the long run.