Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spirit vs. Santa

Last weekend marked the annual Christmas season kick-off in our household. Unlike last year, I’ve found myself surprisingly eager to dive into the holly and tinsel. Something nostalgic has struck me and I’ve felt some of my fonder childhood memories sneak upon me without notice. I won’t complain…after my last Christmas season teetering between complete apathy and borderline contempt I’ll take the almost-giddy that this year brings. Maybe it’s the meds…God knows they’ve helped. Maybe it’s the trip to Jamaica that awaits the gentleman and me on December 26th. Or maybe it’s witnessing my own babies grow and mature…learning what the true spirit of Christmas means to them.

Of course, to me the true spirit extends beyond Santa. This year Ben is the only child remaining who believes in the jolly old elf. It broke my heart last year to learn that Timmy was the next to go down. Libby had taken it upon herself to enlighten him. She is my realist, after all. I’m not lying when I say I’ve threatened her with creepy-and-potentially-haunted-basement seclusion if she chooses to ruin the Santa fantasy for my Ben. I’ve got to get a few more years of mystical wonder and sleepless Christmas Eves out of that one.

In our years as a family we’ve begun to build a very special Thanksgiving weekend tradition. The day after our turkey indulgence we dig all of our holiday decorations from hiding, dust off our mantle, clear a space for our tree and turn this house into a warm, glowing Christmas wonderland. As the holiday draws near I start to do that wondrous Clark Griswold thing. You’ve been there right? Where you build expectations for events up in your mind that no one can possibly live up to? Yeah. That’s me. Every year. It never fails that I imagine the children nicely dressed in their finest jeans and tidy holiday sweaters, bustling about the house, stowing away toys and clutter without gripe, assisting with tree decoration with the precision of an engineer, complete with smiles and amicable mood. “Yes ma’am” and “I love you, momma” dripping from their mouths.

Cue condescending laughter.

I know I know. It never turns out the way I imagine. The jeans and sweater, well that’s just silly. Hell I spent the whole day in my dang hoody and yoga pants. So you can bet your sweet ass that these babies were running around in their undies and old grimy t-shirts. Fine. I can accept that.

The amicable mood and eagerness to put their toys away and make room for the tree that, let’s face it, I’ll end up decorating FOR them? Yeah. Not so much. An instant and never-ending fight, particularly with the girl. LORD where did she get her bull-headed-ness? Probably the gentleman.

On Friday, after getting our live tree set in our living room it was time to set up a tree for the kids in our attic, aka their Wii/LEGO/play room. The girl had been asked the day before to please clean up the attic before our Thanksgiving dinner guests arrived. She had assured us that it had in fact been done. Upon further inspection the next day it appeared as though said cleaning actually meant all loose objects in the attic were stowed in the nearby coat closet. Crafty, that girl. I know that trick though. Been there, been busted for that.

After a lengthy argument, complete with threat of grounding and the like, the girl stomped to her room in tears, insisting that she NOT have to clean the attic any further. Now…I took a few moments to myself after this argument to ponder this first-world issue of hers. I mean really…why SHOULD she have to clean (and by clean I mean straighten and organize an already sanitized space) the THIRD floor of our home, where she gets to play all of the Wii games she can imagine, tinker on the computer, play games on her cell phone and record silly videos on our tablet? How wicked of me to have such an expectation. Does she realize how good she has it? Does she know that most kids aren’t as lucky? That neither her dad nor I grew up with such things? That many of her classmates may never have these luxuries? I want her to realize that. Don’t I?

It’s a balance isn’t it? We raise our babies with the deepest desire of fulfilling their needs and hoping they never go without necessities. Sometimes going a little overboard, living out our own childhood fantasies through our children. Giving them what we never had. But do we do it to a fault? I do want her to know that there are children who are hard-pressed to have one Christmas tree, much less three. We are blessed beyond belief.

I soon found myself obsessing over my failure as a parent to ensure that my kids don’t become indignant sloths, expecting blessings to be handed to them on their tarnished silver platter. Granted, there are kids much more spoiled than mine, who live in a world far more indulgent and blind to the needs of society’s vulnerable. We participate in Angel Tree gift giving each year and take the kids with us to buy presents for our “angels” so that they understand the importance of such programs and realize how lucky they are. But maybe…clearly…we need to do more.

The next day we had made plans to take the kids to a show in the city, followed by dinner and a nighttime stroll around our Circle of Lights. Although the outings I remember as a kid didn’t necessarily involve a show and dinner, I DO remember the wonder of walking downtown and seeing the intricately decorated store windows and the giant, vibrant tree of lights in our beautiful city’s epicenter. I want OUR kids to have these memories too. The afternoon started with a live presentation of “A Christmas Carol”…the first our kids have attended. It was exciting to watch them experience the show. We gathered in the lobby afterward, and listened to the kids recap what they found funny, interesting and even a little scary. They giggled as they saw some of the funny characters make their way out to the crowd to greet and take pictures.

The kids’ laughter began to trail off as their stomachs began to rumble, indicating it was time to make our way through the crowd and out to dinner. Before we got to the door, I saw a few women with buckets, collecting money for a local charity. I smiled and nodded as we passed by, wishing them a Merry Christmas. As the cool evening air greeted my face, I soon realized Libby was no longer beside me. As I turned from side to side, I quickly spotted Libby behind me standing next to one of the women. Lib fumbled through her purse, quickly producing a couple of dollars to contribute to the young lady’s collection.

Huh. I wasn’t expecting that.

I squared my shoulders and took Libby’s hand as we navigated through the masses down the sidewalk. I felt quite proud of my girl at that moment and I told her as much.

"Well, Mom, I just decided this morning that I was going to bring all of the money I had in my room, downtown with us today. Because every time I’m down here I always see people on the sidewalk that probably don’t have a home or food. And I wanted to help. Like that guy we passed when we came out of the parking garage. Did you see him, Mom? Did you??”

I shook my head. I hadn’t noticed him.

“His jacket was SO thin and I just KNOW he had to be cold. It’s SO cold today! I mean…I know my dollar won’t buy him a warm coat but at least it’s something, right, Mom?”

“So you handed him some money? I mean, Libby you have to be careful when you do that down here...were you careful? I’ve had friends mugged for pulling wallets out to give money, Libby.”

“Yes, Mom…Dad was right there…he knew what I was doing and he kept an eye on me.”

I was speechless. My daughter was teaching ME about kindness. And giving. And caring for each other. And she gets that even when you can’t give a lot, every dollar adds up. She has it in her heart, that girl.

I didn’t say much at dinner. I just watched. I watched my kids laugh, and try new food, and share funny stories. I witnessed them making those memories I remember from MY childhood. I did my best to capture some pictures of them as we walked around the Circle, taking in the hustle and bustle of Christmas in the city. It’s without a doubt one of my very favorite places to be.

As the kids grew tired and the gentleman began to grow icicles from his nose, we chose to head back to the car. We came to the door of the parking garage and I quickly heard the jingle of the Salvation Army bell. Without hesitation, Lib reached into her purse for her last couple of dollars, smiled at the lady with the bright red smock, wished her a Merry Christmas and slipped the crisp folded bills into the bucket. I smiled and gave my sweet daughter a hug as we dodged cars lining up to exit. And as I slid into the front seat of our car, I couldn’t hold back the warm tears forming under my eyes.

All I want is for my children to equate the Christmas season with family and laughter and light and giving…not with new iPods or the coolest new jeans or gym shoes. Money comes and goes. We may have it next year. Or we may not. But rich or poor, family time and generosity remains. And by God, I think she gets it. Maybe I’m not failing after all.