By Catherine Wiecher Brunell, author of Becoming Catholic, Again
Most of my parenting mistakes fall into two broad categories. Sometimes I am overzealous, other times I am inexperienced. The worst is when both of these categories apply: I throttle into a situation for which I am unprepared. This combination has resulted in the worst of home haircuts for my children and a Christmas where we almost revealed Santa Claus to a 2 year old.
Our son, Turner, wanted a key. If our youngest child (she is 4th in line) asked for a key this year, we would unwind a key from our chain on Christmas Eve and tuck it into the tree. Two days later, we would reclaim the key and wonder with her about where it went. We do learn. But, five years ago and with our first child, we over thought it. We couldn’t just get him a key. That was too simple. It had to be a special key.
One Saturday morning my husband, Matt, returned from his weekly new home, home depot trip. Along with the assorted materials we don’t actually know how to use, he had a fire safety box. It was a small, heavy box with a secure locking system. In it, we could lock our passports and a piece of hair from Turner’s first bad haircut. Were there ever to be a fire, we wouldn’t lose either. As a Christmas gift, however, it was not exactly what I was looking for. I imagined Turner using the key while the box, and its heft, slammed down on his tiny square hands. Matt said he’d try again.
Later that same night he winked at me in the kitchen and said, “Got the key today.”
I was confused because he was with Turner for most of it. My raised eyebrow judged him before I could respond.
“No. Don’t worry – I distracted him. He didn’t see a thing.”
Christmas morning Turner bounded out of his bedroom and went almost immediately into the Christmas tree. At the time, we lived in house that was divided into two apartments. Where the master bedroom once was, our living room lay instead. It cozied up between the bedroom and the galley kitchen. Without far to go, we barely had time to capture Turner’s toddle into the spectacle. I zoomed the camera onto the Mickey Mouse key, the one from the second Home Depot trip, he was holding in his hand.
I narrated for the video, “Turner, look what you found! Who brought you that?”
“Mommy, the man at Home Depot gave it to me!!!”
“Really? Oh, that was so nice of him.”
My voice remained lilting and full of Christmas cheer while my eyes found Matt and cast impending doom onto him. His mistake in this was inexperience. How could he think that a 2 year old in a shopping cart wouldn’t see the Mickey Mouse key staring at him at eye level? I was guilty of this inexperience too; why did I believe him when he assured me that he’d executed a plan that sounded so risky?
We recovered by pulling the fire safety box out of the pile of returns that had yet to be made.
“Look Turner, Santa brought you a key too! This one has a box to open.”
This year, Turner is seven and has figured out the myth on his own. I am much more comfortable with the reveal at this point in his life. Still, it marks his movement from something that was magical into what is now symbolic. The responsibilities of adulthood foreshadow and life being what you make of it comes into focus.
What will he make of Christmas this year?
Our dear friends celebrate the gift giving tradition not with Santa but with Baby Jesus as the giver. If we borrow this from them, we could be curious with Turner, as curious as he used to be about Santa, as we search for and maybe even discover what Jesus will bring.
If we make it to the vigil on Christmas Eve, we’ll hear the story of Joseph being visited in his dream by a convincing angel. Before the vision, Joseph was ready to quietly disappear but after, he is moved to partner with Mary and to help this new life come into the world. I rely on this convincing every year: to be moved myself so that I can also partner in the newness that God wants to bring. This is the key that I’ll be searching for this Christmas and the one that I hope Turner will receive many times over.
Catherine Wiecher Brunell is a pastoral minister of the everyday. Her life’s work is about finding meaning in ordinary things by teaching and practicing faith. She has a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College. She lives in Natick, Massachusetts, with her four children and husband. Her latest book, Becoming Catholic, Again, is featured at the Patheos Book Club here.