I’d like to think that this time of year many children will go to sleep with “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads” just like in the traditional Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
However, experience tells me that children will be restless in slumber dreaming about a long list of expensive and exotic toys that will push their parents over the brink into a dark landscape of anxiety and debt. It’s not a judgement by any means. It’s just an observation on how times have changed. These days it’s all about how money and material things have replaced the spirit of the season. Now where have you heard that before?
When our kids were young, my husband Jimmy always read the Night Before Christmas poem on Christmas Eve hyping up the anticipation of the Christmas Day chaos that was to come. Of course Jimmy added his own special twist to the Christmas poem shaping it to meet our situation at the time.
In those days Christmas was somewhat of a “lean” holiday for our kids which included new pajamas and one “big” present. Sometimes it wasn’t the exact toy or musical instrument on their list but a close substitute which didn’t cost as much. Between me, Jimmy, and my mom we always managed to put something under the tree.
In an effort to make our children feel better about our situation at the time, Jimmy told our kids that Mr. Moore didn’t have any money to buy his children presents. And so Mr. Moore wrote this beautiful poem for them. I’m quite sure that Professor Moore’s children had plenty of Christmas presents – but that was beside the point. Jimmy never let details get in the way of a good story.
Jimmy’s version of how the poem came to be actually made them feel worse. Our kids, a sensitive lot by nature and nurture, shed big silent tears for those poor children that didn’t have presents for Christmas. It prompted them to propose that perhaps they would be better off giving their presents away. It was what sociologists sometimes refer to as the “law of unintended consequences.”
Jimmy convinced them that giving up their presents was a temporary solution to a bigger problem. And that Christmas was not a one day affair but that goodness and kindness should be an every day gift we give to others.
Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas was the gift of empathy.
Over the years as our situation improved and our children got older. Jimmy no longer read the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Instead he shared his own childhood Christmas memories. There was no Christmas tree and no Christmas presents only a candelabrum of three electric candles in the front window. But as one of six children, they always knew they had each other. More tears ensued as my children began to question why we celebrated such a sad season. It made Lent look positively festive by comparison.
Jimmy’s gift to our children was the importance of being together.
There’s a line in the song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that sums it up beautifully, “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.” And we’ve been lucky that fate and faith have been very good to us.
Of course there were some years we laughed so hard we cried. Like the year Jimmy and his brother Frank bought a 1970s red convertible with a white ragtop at a police auction. They parked it in the driveway late once Christmas Eve as a gift for our eldest daughter. I’m not sure what they paid for it, but I think I could guess.
Come Christmas morning when she woke up and saw a red convertible parked in the driveway, she ran out in her slippers and her robe clutching a set of car keys oblivious to the cold and snow. She slid into the driver’s seat and hugged the steering wheel. A car for Christmas just like in the movies!
She turned the key in the ignition and the car didn’t start. She tried again, and she was met by silence. We all watched from the dining room window. She tried again and again. And after about 15 minutes and freezing from the cold, she gave up and came into the house.
I expected her to be angry or disappointed. Her siblings scattered to the four corners of the house because as a redhead her temper often got the best of her.
Instead she danced around the dining room table and hugged her father. The fact that the car wouldn’t start was a minor inconvenience for the moment, as she wouldn’t turn 16 for another three months.
In the meantime, she couldn’t wait to go to school and tell her friends what she received for Christmas. The fact that it didn’t start was a minor detail. And like her father, she never let the details get in the way of a good story.
Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas: It’s not the gift that matters; it’s the thought that counts.