Archive for December, 2006

Why I Believe

I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in him approximately the way I believe in St. Paul, in fact. Once, there was indisputably someone named Paul that went about doing good, and there was indisputably a St. Nicholas as well, who did similar things (on a little smaller – or at least less publicized – scale). These men are gone, but there are still missionaries like Paul – I was one myself – and there are lots and lots of people that spend money they don’t really have giving things to people.

But this post isn’t about Santa Claus, at least not directly. It’s about what else I believe about Christmas, which is that it is the greatest holiday ever conceived for anything. This is appropriate, since it commemorates the greatest event ever.

As previously posted, I deplore the fact that the Christmas bustle starts sometime in October, since Thanksgiving is not a marketing holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving is only used by retailers (other than grocery stores, bless them) as a convenient marker for the kickoff of the Rumble in the Aisles, the massive Friday-after-Turkey discount extravaganza that never fails to get Orlando on the map for largest number of people arrested at WalMart.

This type of behavior is exactly what the religious types among us bemoan at the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. It’s a Christmas sale, for crying out loud. Peace on Earth, people. But no. The struggle to get that one more thing seems to drown out the Reason for the Season, and that leads to an unbelievable amount of hand-wringing and sanctimonious preaching from the devout that the Real Meaning of Christmas Has Been Forgotten. Woe be unto us!

Let’s deal with the reason for the season then, just to get it out of the way. Christmas, as you might expect if you’ve ever looked at the word, has to do with Christ. It is, in fact, the Mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of the Savior of Mankind into the world. I won’t retell the story, because if you don’t know it, even if you are Jewish, then you’ve lived your whole life on Mars. But it’s a true story, and a deeply important one. It’s so important in fact, that it shines through even modern society’s very highly-developed methods of obscuring it.

I once had a discussion with a friend of mine who is a borderline agnostic (raised one religion, now regularly attends no church, but is pretty sure there’s a God). We were discussing the foreknowledge of God, and how we could be free to choose our own path in this life if there was an omniscient being who already knew what we were going to do. It occurred to me that if God were not omniscient, if He were not in complete command of the situation, if He were not able to make all things – all things – work together for good for them that believe, that I would have no interest in worshipping Him. What kind of God is surprised, or even occasionally outmaneuvered? Wouldn’t you want your God to be better than you are?

Man, I sure would.

Fortunately, God is actually God, and that means that He’s got things pretty well in hand, whatever we do to rain death and destruction and misery down on ourselves. This would include the birth of His Son, I think. There is no way He is surprised that the events surrounding His Son’s condescension have spawned a two-monthlong marketing bonanza that makes the heathen feasts that used to mark the end of the year look like a ladies cotillion. This has not caught God off guard. He is still God, and He is still running things.

And He’s smarter than we think.

Yes, we hear from the pulpit over and over how we’ve lost the Spirit of the Season, that Santa Claus has replaced the babe in the manger, how we concern ourselves far more with Decking the Halls than with having an occasional Silent Night to contemplate the birth that makes the holiday happen in the first place. But do we?

Here’s a line at WalMart at 11pm the week of Christmas. There are enormous carts filled with magical – truly, folks, magical – goodies of every type and description. It’s late and it’s a work day and everyone is tired, including the cashier. Someone fumbles with her purse and the change goes spilling across the floor like candy from a broken jar. The woman tiredly reaches down and starts chasing the glittering coins, but she isn’t alone. Everyone in line is on the floor with her, smiling, scooping copper and zinc back into her purse. Except one man, who reaches across while she’s down there, zips his card through the reader, punches in his PIN, winks at the cashier, and puts the small sacks of her goodies into her cart. Bends down and scrabbles on the floor with the rest of us. When the woman stands up her bill is paid and no one will own up to having done it. The cashier wishes her a Merry Christmas and out the door she goes, bewildered and grateful and tearful. As are we all.

Tell me you’re going to see that in March.

Here’s something else. The line is longish, and especially after something like that, people get to talking. I ask the man in front of me “so, what you got there?” He smiles and says “my mother has been complaining about her feet the last couple of months, saying that they’re always cold. So I got this whirlpool-style foot massager that heats the water.” “That ought to handle it,” I say. “Yep. I think it will.” He goes on to show me, as we shuffle forward, a half-dozen other items in the cart, one for his little girl, some for his twin boys, a couple of little candies for his wife. It occurs to me, a little at a time, the way the sun rises, that his $230 basket of gifts contains not one thing – not one thing – for himself. We’ve talked for 15 minutes and he hasn’t said a word about himself. I don’t even know his name.

There are perhaps 20 people in this line, and there are 4 of these lines in this store, and there are 3900 Wal Marts in the US. And every single cart is filled with things for people other than the ones doing the buying. Every purchase is a gift.

I’m sure this happens in August, too. On some other planet.

If giving to others is the forgetting of oneself, and if the forgetting of oneself is the path to finding oneself, if the surest path to God is the caring for others, then somehow, miracle of miracles, God has contrived it so that the entire hedonistic season points men back to Him.

I like giving gifts. I spend months planning them. I like buying things. I spend as freely as I possibly can, and I’m here to encourage you to do the same. Don’t be stupid. But do go all the way. Give what you truly wish to give and let January deal with the fallout. Giving with your heart is never – it is NEVER – a bad idea. If someone nags you about it, smile, be polite, and don’t pay them any attention. All the preaching and the moralizing probably has its place, too, but honestly, more often than not (and I am, myself, a fairly religious fellow) it seems like the preachers are telling us to stop having fun because they are worried that if they don’t personally put a stop to all this getting and spending that God will be unable to do His thing.

Wouldn’t you prefer a God that didn’t much need your help?

Well, good news. You have one.

Merry Christmas.

(Much of this post was originally written in December of 2005)

I Am Time Magazine’s Person of the Year

No, really. I am. It’s taken some time for them to realize just how important to the functioning of the universe I really am, but finally, after all these years, the light has been turned on at stodgy old Time.

Okay, so it’s me and several million others. But as a proud member of the top 10% of bloggers on the ‘net, I proudly accept the honor and am adding it to my resume. You should, too. Take a look.

And thanks for reading. I appreciate it.

Expanding the Mystery of Christmas

A month ago we wrote in the Potty Post about how my family several years ago stopped putting tags on presents. To explain for those not on the mailing list for the Post, a few years ago we started getting worried about the tendency of our children – a tendency multipied manyfold by television – to concentrate all their energy on what they were going to get for Christmas from Santa Claus and their parents. We have a large family and knew that we’d be having more children than we had then, and we determined that we had to come up with some way for Christmas not to degenerate into a huge festival of greed.

What we came up with was an expansion on an idea my father had when I was a kid. Presents began to show up under the tree, wrapped in newsprint, with no names on them. When one of those presents was passed out to the family (my brother was always the passer), we would all stop and look to see what it was, and see if we might want it. It was pretty much always a book, but in my family that was a prized gift. If you wanted it, you spoke up, and there was a discussion, then someone ended up with the gift. Those presents were somehow different than the others. There was less chaos when those were being opened, and they were always surprises. So we thought, why not do that for all the gifts?

We tried it. The first year was very difficult. It was even hard for the kids to imagine how it would work – what do you mean, I can’t put “From: Alexander To: Crispin”on the present? – but after a while it became clear that some important things were happening.

Right away, we discovered that we had to think much, much harder about what we wanted to give to others than we had before. Without the luxury of tagging the presents, the gifts had to tag themselves, that is, we had to give something so special and unique to the recipient that no matter who opened the gift, the recipient would know that it was for him, and – and this is the really hard part – he would also know who the gift was from. If that sounds impossible, don’t worry. We thought so, too.

We also saw that our Christmas preparations began much earlier, because unique gifts have to be purchased (or more often, made) when the opportunity strikes, even if that’s in July. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Christmas Day itself started increasing in importance to the family, and becoming more and more special of a time. I’m not talking about the always-breathless stampede down the stairs to see what Santa brought (and yes, Santa still comes), but the part afterward, where we sit together and open our gifts. Now, instead of everyone grabbing his presents and opening them as fast as he can, the presents are opened one at a time, in some sort of rotation, and everyone watches to see what the gift is. You have to. What if it’s for you? And Christmas morning started lasting until the early afternoon.

The gifts themselves also mean more, naturally, since they are worried over and thought about for months. This means the people that get those gifts also mean more. We love what we serve, and we love more what we work for. More love was being poured into the gifts. Once, we had no money for gifts at all. This made practically no difference. The kids made gifts for each other and for us, and that Christmas remains one of the most memorable of our family’s history. The selfishness almost vanished. Instead of long lists of stuff the kids wanted, we had long conversations with each child about his siblings, and what they might like to receive. Instead of “I can’t wait to open my presents”, we heard “I can’t wait until you open my gift to you!”

Last year, we went to a Christmas expo/festival kind of thing, and as we walked in, each of our children was handed a “Christmas list”, with twenty or so blanks for writing in what they wanted for Christmas. On the reverse side was a list of what needed to be given to others. There were maybe four blanks. One of our children took this list, looked at it, and said “I’m supposed to want four times as much stuff as I’m giving to other people? What a waste of time,” and threw the list in the trash.

It takes more of our time, and we have to be very involved as parents in what our children are giving to each other. It takes more time, sometimes a lot more time. We now have a Birthday Party for Jesus on Christmas Eve, which is an older tradition, but now we also have a family reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2 on our bed on Christmas morning – a tradition started by the kids themselves. Really. They came into our room and started reading the scriptures before they went downstairs to see their presents. We take all day opening presents. Last year, when Christmas was on a Sunday, rather than interrupt the gift-giving to each other to go to church, the kids decided to have that part of Christmas the next day, making Christmas a two-day event. It was one of the most amazing and magical Christmases imaginable.

It’s possible that this wouldn’t work for your family, and that we just have the sort of people it works well for. But if you could do one thing that would boost the Christmas spirit, the spirit of giving, by five or six times, wouldn’t you do it? That’s why we started. For us, it worked.

On Magic, Blogs, and Sealing-Wax

This morning (late last night?) Szent Miklos, known variously as Sinterklaas and sometimes even Santa Claus, brought stuff to fill the shoes of our family, placed on the hearth around our fireplace in anticipation of the visit of Santa, his horse Piet, and Black Peter, also known as Krampusz. If we were good, we got candy. If we were bad, we got sticks. All of us were very good, apparently, as Santa left us not only belgian chocolate but also tickets to the Las Vegas Bowl.

Christmas is magic, truly, but I wonder if there is anything fundamentally different about Christmas giving and other giving. Isn’t all giving magic? All our children love and still believe in Santa Claus (our oldest child, Alexander, is almost 15 and is far from a stupid kid, but even he was totally bamboozled by the bowl tickets, which haven’t been available now for almost a month), and we like it that way, but Santa Claus is not the highlight of Christmas in this house. He’s sort of like a mysterious uncle that adds an element of magic to the proceedings. You never know what he’s going to bring. Cost seems to be no object, though the gifts are rarely very expensive. Santa Claus is magic.

As mentioned in an article last week in the Lehi Free Press, I aspire to be Santa Claus. Not the jolly fat man in the red suit, necessarily, unless that’s required, but the fellow in Miracle on 34th Street. Here’s the quintessential: the little dutch kid (or, in the remake, the deaf child) comes to sit on his lap, and the mother says to Santa, “she’s Dutch, she just wanted to sit on your lap”, and Kris Kringle looks indulgently at the mother then turns his entire attention on the child and proceeds to have a conversation with her in fluent Dutch. What power that man had to make people happy! Is there something more wonderful that I’m unaware of? What if I could do that, too? Is this not the greatest of magics?

[Editor's Note: The greatest magic was performed by this Man, whom I truly aspire to be, but one rarely discusses that sort of thing in public, and almost never in the newspaper.]

It’s a long, long way from where I am to where Kris Kringle is. He seems to have unlimited resources; mine are meager. He is always jolly and has time for children; I am often grumpy and too busy to direct all my attention on little ones. But he wants to make people happy, and I do, too. I want to do magic. At Christmas, I can almost see how I could. The veil, so to speak, is a little thinner. There’s less of a gap between my workaday self and the me I want to be. Is it so for you, too?

This blog is almost 30 months old, now, which makes it one of the longest-running regularly-posted blogs on the web. I want to take a second and thank you for reading. It means a great deal to me – and is still a surprise – that you would take time to read what I have to write. I wish you’d comment, as well, if you wish to, even if what you have to say is not “polite”. You aren’t guests here; you’re participants. If I say something foolish, you can call me on it and I swear I will not be offended. If I can’t defend my positions, why have them at all?

Yesterday I went to a craft store to buy some sealing wax and a wax seal. The store had a tiny selection, ridiculously priced, and nothing in the letter J. I went home, Googled “wax seal” and immediately found a website that had hundreds of seals and a gigantic selection of waxes, all at roughly half the price of the craft store’s. Magic, I tell you. Or as near magic as makes no nevermind. And don’t ask me what the seal and the wax are for. It’s a surprise.

In Which I Become a Florida Fan

I have hated every school from Florida (except Jacksonville State!) as long as I can remember, but I hate the BCS even more. Therefore, since we now have the spectacle of Florida versus the BCS, I am a Florida fan. Chomp! Chomp!

The story is here. Godspeed Bernie Machen. That he would do this, undertake this crusade even though Florida benefitted from the BCS process this time, is unusual and wonderful and I officially love this man. And Florida, the city of Tallahassee, and the color orange. And alligators, but I already liked them.