Large families, when things are oiled smoothly with courtesy and grace and fair treatment and forgiveness… and good food and other things… can be very merry groups of people. Josh and I are fortunate to have lots of siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, and getting together with them is one of the great pleasures of our lives.
When you’re freshly married there’s a strong pull in another direction – to form a family identity for your new family. A big extended family is somewhere between public and private and I, at least, feel keenly the virtues of private pleasures. I want my kids to have those greenhouse experiences and even those crucible experiences with one another and us that lets them know they are experiencing a completely unique relation which will never be duplicated or replaced or broken.
It sometimes feels, even for the eldest, that a big family swallows that up. Josh and I have been together for more than eight years, including dating, but there are ways in which I’m still closer to my sisters than to him. Like the lovers in the Song of Songs (which is Solomon’s) I want him to be not only spouse but also brother – that is, daily companion, thought-sharer, comfortable affectionate fellow taster of life.
Yesterday for the first time we spent a holiday together – just us four. Josh, Ian, Alexandra, and I dressed to the precise pitch we wished to dress, wandered out to the car when we felt like it, and drove to Frankenmuth listening to fine music and having conversation (up front) or sleeping (in back.) We ordered a Thanksgiving dinner from the Bavarian Inn. Lexy squirmed on my lap and tasted everything; Ian obsessed about the bubble gum he planned to buy afterward and only ate French Fries.
“It’s a holiday,” I said. “Let’s leave everyone free to enjoy it in the way he wishes.”
Josh thought a minute. “OK.” he said. “Then I want Ian’s Macaroni and Cheese.” They shared the plate.
We played truth or dare. Josh, finicky and persnickety, refused to say “dare.” So I brought the challenge to him and made him tell us his most embarrassing moment.
“Bring it out so we can laugh at it together and change it from something horrible to something funny,” I said.
It turned out to be a lapse of timeliness during basic training that made his whole unit hate him. We made up funny things he could have said to the drill sergeant when he reported late for a formation, and ended up laughing so hard I, at least, cried in delight. Josh may have been crying for a different reason; I’m not sure. After that Josh began choosing dares.
Ian made funny faces in the dining room mirror and I wore Lexy like a hat for five seconds. Josh, at my behest, stood and toasted the Prince of Liechtenstein (long may he reign, God-blessed.) Strangers stared at us laughing and it wasn’t embarrassing. When I was a teenager I wondered how adults could be so unself-conscious around strangers. Now I know: the curious but ultimately disinterested stare of someone too unlike you to have predicted your behavior is so much less stressful than the disapproval and unwanted interest of someone you do know and will have to see again. The former feels like a benediction by comparison.
Everyone in the room was relaxed, like us. Everyone there was released from something. Unlike the families on TV we weren’t sitting politely around a massive family table thanking the fuming, perspiring cook. Inside, everyone let go of the furtiveness with which they had left their homes on Thanksgiving Day and drove to a tourist spot. The place was swarming and so was the restaurant across the street; several of the dining rooms were so full they were closed. Obviously we weren’t as abnormal as we thought. Even the waiters were merry. It was a family restaurant enjoying one of the busiest days of the year – and it was good tipping season.
“This relish reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking,” I said. A door opened in my mind and I suddenly realized I hadn’t felt this way since I was a kid. Is it possible, I thought, that we have discovered the key to recapturing the joy of the holidays?
Downstairs, in the candy shop, I looked at funny bars of chocolate. “How to survive the holidays,” read one package, and proceeded to list 100 ways. “Find a new family,” said one, facetiously. Josh and I looked at all the relaxed, happy people around us and wondered if any of them would be willing to admit that was less of a joke than it pretended to be.
It was a good reminder that what we value about tradition is not its content, frozen in time, but rather its ways of sifting through practices and only passing down the things that work, the things that please, the things that add meaning and value to human existence. The most rigid people are the least traditional. It was also a good reminder that holidays should be less stressful, not more, than ordinary days and that if it isn’t true, something is not working – something is not right.
No doubt that’s why God commanded his people to drink wine or strong drink or whatsoever their heart desired on the Sabbath and most holy days. Tribal Israel was a family-based society and He knew they needed it.
After dinner the weather was still warm. We packed Lexy up in the stroller with a hat and blanket and and wandered around town, patting horse’s noses and analyzing the landscaping (they’ve installed a wonder of a waterfall going down to the boat launch on the river, since we were there last and Josh and I are fascinated by things like that.) We took our time looking at Christmas lights and nativity scenes and generally being a family unto ourselves. And at the exactly right moment, we all agreed that it was time to get in the car and go home. Just as we buckled up it began raining. I slept on the way home, having driven on the way there. When I woke, we’d gotten out from under the rain storm and Ian and Josh were telling one another stories. Lexy slept and woke again. Back home, I put her warm pajamas on and she sat on the bed and made a funny noise at me and then burst out laughing.
I woke up this morning and felt it was still a holiday.
Once in a dream that my husband and I shared, St. Nicholas indicated to Josh that he had given certain gifts to our family, to protect, heal, and enrich us all. Whenever we have an especially golden moment like that I like to thank St. Nicholas, just in case.
For Christmas we’re going to Wisconsin. We have traditions there already. For one thing, we like to put up people’s own, actual socks on the mantle instead of decorated “stockings” and we sneak around in the middle of the night dropping anonymous gifts into them. What I value about this tradition is that it honors St. Nicholas, who threw the gold into the children’s shoes anonymously. It’s a chance for me to give a gift without attaching an obligation for the recipient to ‘Ooooo’ and ‘Aaaahhh’ appreciatively as repayment for my effort. It’s an immense pleasure and it brings gift-giving up to the level of free persons rather than turning it into a slavish trade. The tradition was forged by a marriage of my husband’s ideas and mine.
I have many people in Wisconsin that I need to see this season. But first and foremost, though perhaps counter intuitively, I’m going there to see my husband and children, the people I supposedly live with from day to day. I’m going there to see them among my first, parental family. I’m going to see them dressed up, dancing, and in their pajamas, shredding wrapping paper. I’m going to see them in other people’s eyes and in the landscape of my nativity and at breakfast and lunch and dinner and playing with my siblings and in front of a 13-foot Christmas tree and unable to contain their excitement and telling stories by firelight when everyone should have been to bed an hour ago. I’m lucky in that my husband actually wants to go with me. My parents made the fortunate decision not to place expectations on us when we were married and Josh has always felt accepted and at ease in my father’s house, despite our sometimes differing choices and opinions. My parents always had an open door policy and no one has ever felt like an intruder in that house. My father’s new wife is a hospitable person and is continuing that tradition. It’s easy to respond to someone who gives freely in this way – and that’s the whole quality of Christmas in my opinion.
My dad usually tries to keep gift giving organized but he begat an excitable bunch. Invariably it devolves into glorious chaos. Grace usually starts by handing out presents in order and ends by handing them out in clumps and instructing people to wait a little while between presents. People shout and laugh and try out gifts and holler thank yous which may or may not be heard across a room. And somehow it’s not anywhere near as exhausting as stuffier Christmas mornings elsewhere.
My mother in law sometimes hosts a white elephant gift exchange between us and them and her own extended family. In this case, the merriment can hardly be stopped because the recipient is even free to dislike the gift he or she receives and the giver is free to turn the whole thing into a joke if he wishes!
I think there are certain virtues which immediately lose all their significance when they are forced or compelled, whether by punishment, social expectation, guilt, or even over-much instruction. Generosity, hospitality, courtesy, gallantry - the gentle virtues, require freedom to blossom. It requires that people not keep track, either of themselves or of others when what’s at issue are things that exceed the requirements of fairness and justice.
Christmas, of course, is the perfect event for cultivating these gentle virtues. I think people who fear that their children are learning to be materialistic when they receive a lot of gifts are missing the mark. When I was a girl, the presents around my grandparents’ tree formed a mountain. There were almost as many around my parents’ tree the next morning. The following afternoon gifts were passed out at my other grandparents’ and even at church, goody bags were handed out after the children caroled for everyone. Looking back, I do remember the uninhibited joy and excitement this generated. And maybe I forgot to say thank you sometimes, absorbed in the object I held in my hand. But now that I am grown, I don’t believe that I grew into a getter rather than a giver. Except, perhaps, that I have a finicky dislike of giving where it’s expected. (I’ve tasted the real thing; I hate substitutes.) Rather, I want to make sure that my kids and younger siblings have the same experience I had and I’m excited about being the one that gives it to them. Generosity is fun. My siblings also feel the same way. Based on my experience I believe that the joy of receiving abundant, no-strings-attached generosity matures into the joy of giving same.
I think it’s important to not give junk that clutter’s people lives, merely out of obligation. I also think it’s important to not spend beyond one’s means. I think, in general, that parents ought to stop thinking of everything they do as a social experiment being performed upon their children, and instead pay attention to questions of virtue and vice. It’s silly to believe that children will be spoiled by generous and patient parents. Only parents who are too impatient to think about what their children need, and give them uniform strictness or leniency, will “spoil” their child. And of course a “spoiled” child is nothing more than an unduly agitated child, a young person who cannot feel right within himself because his parents and environment are out of balance. As a result he constantly seeks to be soothed by acquiring or controlling something he hopes will put himself to rights.
In general, I think there’s far too much meanness and viciousness and impatience and hardness and stinginess and laziness masquerading as good parenting.
I don’t like the practice of putting a child on Santa’s knee and having him give a long list of things he wants. My grandparents always gave me things that surprised me and that was part of the delight. I had no idea Tinker Toys existed till I got some as a present and then I felt I had a treasure under my arm. I looked at them with wonder all year long. When a child makes a Christmas list he begins to feel a sense that someone is obligated to give him some of what he asked for. As I said before, I think that when any form of obligation or expectation attaches to generosity, it devolves from a gentle virtue into something less worthy of free persons. Receiving the gift, too, is less pleasurable.
Some Christians make a fuss about Santa replacing Jesus but it’s much more natural to explain the phenomenon as a replacement for Saints in general and Saint Nicholas in particular, especially since that’s what the Santa character quite literally is. I’ve noticed that whenever traditional elements of religion are discarded, they pop up in a new form as if people needed them after all. Testimony meeting replaces confession; the scriptures are converted into a Sacramental font; the sinner’s prayer replaces the older use of baptism; heroes and cult devotees replace saints. For my own part, if I ever placed my child on St. Nicholas’ knee, I’d want him to be getting a blessing, not asking for something I am pleased to give him freely. But perhaps it’s different than I suppose. Perhaps mothers find that the little one whispering a wish to his “saint” as if in prayer, wonders and rejoices when the gift miraculously appears under the tree.
Many frugal but generous mothers I know do their Christmas shopping all year long. I’ve been trying to imitate them more. In a large family there are many people to buy for and I’m not very organized. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that the very best gifts are the ones that invite the recipient’s participation. These gifts send a message: “I know you are a real person with a lot of potential; I believe in your competence; here, try this!” These gifts often obligate the giver to spend time with the recipient working on a project. If gifts with no obligation attaching to the recipient are worthy of free persons, a gift with obligation attaching to the giver is the pitch of perfection. Don’t try it unless you are ready and able to follow through!
I think, in honor of the Christ child, we ought to mention that it’s children who are always ready and eager to give this highest sort of gift – the promise to clean a room or massage a back or walk a dog or put on a concert.
Here’s my favorite kid gift list. I’ve given, witnessed, or received most of these at some point in my life and can vouch for their effectiveness. It helps to know whether the child on the receiving end is an introvert or extrovert; a doer or ponderer; a hands-on or studious type.
Snap-electronics projects set from Radio Shack
Candle-making book and starter set
Dance or music or gymnastic or sailing or fencing or horseback riding lessons.
Calligraphy book and starter set
Membership to activity club, zoo, or museum (if you’re really hard up for money, you can always invent a club)
Lego project kit
Building dominos set
Books, books, books! (Is the child into fiction or non-fiction or both? It’s worth finding out! For kids who already have all the popular American books, you might try Brian Jacques, a prolific British fantasy author I particularly love.)
Leather-working beginner’s set
Bead-crafting/ beading tools and supplies and books (this means the kid can make presents for others)
Any weaving, knitting, or crocheting book and set
Day-outing to a special place (many kids get so excited about leaving when it’s dark, eating in new places, seeing interesting sights)
Any Klutz book at all! (For my sister and me growing up, ‘Hair: A Book of Braiding and Styles’ was a favorite for years.)
Enjoy the coming holidays; Good Christian men, rejoice!