Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.
But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:
Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.
By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.
So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.
The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.
The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.
“Why are we going to Home Depot?”
“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”
“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”
“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”
They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.
“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.
I laughed out loud.
“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”
“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”
Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.
As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.
After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.
There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.
I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.
Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.
My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.
So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.
What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.