In case you haven't noticed, Christmas is a time for kids. So the adult in you won't enjoy it at all without first doing what Jesus says. "Unless you change and be like little children, you'll never enter the kingdom of heaven." This very same season, when seen through the eyes of an adult, becomes so distorted that it takes on a whole other meaning. Joy is replaced by shopping, magic by the very fact of being the one responsible for all the decorating. It's easy to get bogged down by the relentless 'to do' list of this highly commercialized Season.
That's why it's imperative to connect with your childhood joy. Starting sometime in December, I play Christmas carols while I work, especially the artists that I listened to as a child: Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Mahalia Jackson. I let my spirit lighten until it floats, heading back to a time of magic and wonder. I believed in Jesus, as I do now, and I also believed in Santa Claus. My faith in both was unshakable, creating extra dimensions in the world around me. Only a child could pass from one to another without skepticism getting in the way.
Children are almost bipolar in their emotions, and Christmas was a time of cheerfulness that bordered on the manic. The countdown to Christmas Eve would start with a trip to the bush for the perfect tree, something that my parents left up to my siblings and me. We all loved to do it but my sister Cindy and I were the true fanatics. We had a hack saw of my dad's that was all my mother would let us take. After we got it home and let the tree thaw a little, we'd cover it with delicate glass balls, colored lights of green, blue and red, and enough tinsel to choke five dogs. Tree decorating usually took place just a day or two before Christmas Eve. My mother, a full time nurse with seven children, would find the time to bake and the house would fill up with the other true meaning of Christmas, sugar, chocolate and French meat pies.
On Christmas Eve, I like to remember how it felt walking out into a starry night, well past my bedtime, to attend Midnight Mass. Even the most casual families (ours) were dressed up and we'd all smile shyly at the other kids in our Catechism class, as if we were strangers. There was a strong smell of alcoholic beverages in the air, not masked by the incense the priest waved. It was not the teenagers present that were responsible and my mother would frown a little at the idea of grownups drinking before Mass. It didn't bother me, though. I couldn't keep my eyes off the creche with its sparkly gunmetal cloth and statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus and various attendants. The angel perched at the top was always my favorite, her benign smile hinting that Christmas was her favorite time of year, too. (Angels, in my mind, were always women. Maybe it was the long hair.)
After Mass, we'd have a special meal and then head off to bed. Before going inside the house, I used to stand on the sidewalk looking up at the sky, my heart racing at the thought that maybe this time, I could catch Santa in the act of landing on our own roof. I'd go to bed and lie very still, listening for the sound of hooves. There was always that moment of disappointment in the morning, right before the excitement of the day set in. The realization that I'd missed seeing him again.Except for the time when my parents hired someone to come over dressed like Santa, but that was earlier and we hadn't been to church yet. Still, it kept me believing.
In fact, I was almost eleven by the time I found out that Santa wasn't real. It was crushing, and changed the way I celebrated Christmas with my own children, which was with more emphasis on the Jesus part. Still, I confess that whenever I stand outside on Christmas Eve, I just have to look up at the night sky. I want to see the stars, and picture the wise men searching through the darkness, finding the Christmas star and following it. I let my eyes scan the heavens, pretending to myself that I'm not looking for anything in particular. But I am, of course.
The child inside me still yearns for the magic, for a return to days where anything is possible, including a fat man in a red suit flying some reindeer across the sky. I wrap the feeling around myself like a cloak and revel in it. The real Christmas story comforts me and brings hope and faith to my life. So this Christmas (and every other to come) I'm going to ignore all the hard work, even as I do it. I'll let my thoughts and senses wander back to the days when I knew the meaning of real excitement. My parents took the time out of their busy lives to create a season filled with joy. At last, I'm old enough to look inside myself and say, "There you are, youngster! Welcome!" To my fellow grown ups, I invite you to come on in. Enter the Kingdom, revel in the bliss of favorite memories, and have the merriest Christmas ever.