In last week’s episode of the ABC family comedy The Middle, Frankie (the mom) decides that, to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas, the kids won’t get a big haul of gifts. The kids greet this news with wide-eyed panic. When Frankie’s parents, dismayed that their grandchildren won’t get many gifts, show up Christmas morning with a huge load of presents, Frankie has a spectacular meltdown during which she yells at everyone for ruining the special Christmas she planned. Then she realizes that she is actually the one ruining Christmas with her tantrum and insistence that everyone do Christmas her way.
In an utterly different take on Christmas giving, writer Ann Voskamp recently described on her blog how her son asked one Christmas, “Why don’t we give up things so we can give to Jesus for his birthday?” In the ten years since then, Voskamp and her family have chosen not to get gifts for each other, but rather to pore over catalogs from places like Compassion and World Vision to select gifts (animals, clean water, etc.) for the world’s poor.
These two stories couldn’t be more different—one about a stereotypical American family whose kids can’t imagine Christmas without gifts, and one about a family who joyfully celebrates without gifts. But I think both point to an important lesson when it comes to helping our kids see Christmas as more than an opportunity to get a bunch of stuff they want.
If I announced to my kids that we’re forgoing gifts this Christmas, they would respond as the kids in The Middle did—with dismay and panic. And frankly, I enjoy getting them each a nice little pile of gifts, chosen very deliberately using both their wish lists and my knowledge of them for guidance. But my kids’ love of their own gifts has led to a fascination with our church’s Angel Tree—a ministry run by Prison Fellowship whereby people purchase gifts for children on behalf of their moms and dads who are in prison. My kids always want to pick lots and lots of cards, and I have to explain that we actually can’t take a lot because then other people in our church wouldn’t get a chance to help. So we usually just pick two, belonging to kids near my kids’ ages.
My children talk and talk about how the kids will love their gifts. They also ask why a mom or dad would be in prison, and who takes care of the kids while they are. I’d like to think that, besides learning that other kids don’t have as much as they do and that it feels good to help someone, my children are also learning that prisoners are not nameless “bad guys,” but whole people who love their children. If it were up to me, I might skip the Angel Tree giving. I could be confident that no child would be left ungifted, because there is plenty of interest in the Angel Tree within my church. And it’s one more thing on my long to-do list. But for my kids, it’s an indispensable ritual of Advent.
A few weeks ago, my friend Leeann responded to a plea I put on Facebook for hand-me-down clothes for a four-year-old girl I learned about through my sister. The little girl’s mom was struggling because her ex-husband wasn’t paying his child support. As Leeann searched her closets for outgrown clothing, her kids asked about this little girl, and why she needed their old clothes. Leeann explained, then went on to say that that some kids’ families don’t have enough money to buy lots of toys at Christmas, especially when they don’t even have enough money to buy stuff the kids need. So her kids said they wanted to get this little girl some new toys for Christmas. Together, they settled on some fleece pajamas, a Strawberry Shortcake toy, and a Little Pony toy. They wrapped the gifts, and I sent them off to my sister in Massachusetts, who will make sure they get to that little girl. So three kids in Connecticut, led by curiosity and compassion, have made sure that a little girl in Massachusetts whose name they don’t even know will have a few gifts under her tree.
A few wrapped gifts won’t change the fact that some kids’ parents are in prison, or that a little girl’s mom is struggling to provide the most basic necessities. Buying $50 worth of clothes and toys doesn’t come close in radical gift-giving to Ann Voskamp’s family tradition of forgoing gifts altogether to give generously to the poor around the world.
I’m guessing there are a fair number of parents who, upon reading Voskamp’s beautiful post about her family’s tradition, thought, “I should tell my family that we’re doing that too.” But as Frankie Heck learned in The Middle, telling our family what to do doesn’t often work out so well. A key component of Voskamp’s story is that the idea didn’t come from her; it came from her son.
Loving our children, first and foremost, requires accepting who they are. Perhaps if we let our children take the lead in deciding on family traditions to make Christmas meaningful, it will actually be meaningful, instead of just one more way that we parents make ourselves crazy trying to mold our children and homes into what we think they should be. And if we’re working throughout the year on teaching and modeling compassion, mindful consumption, and thoughtful gift-giving, then I am confident that our children can lead us toward ways of giving instead of only receiving.