Most of us were blessed with a happy childhood. Even if times were tough back then, we still tend to look upon our youth with fondness. Perhaps, this is because we were innocent. Or maybe our current recollections of the fun we had running and jumping simply outweigh the few tears we shed over a skinned knee or a scraped elbow. We sustained very few injuries that a soapy rinse, a dab of mercurochrome, a Band-Aid and a kiss from mom couldn't cure in a jiffy. Then we were outside playing again, racing bicycles and soaring on swings, as long as there was light in the sky. Any dark clouds that may have risen in our developmental history eventually fade into the shadows as the years blur by. Such “forgettings” and “forgivings” are among the graces of growing older and wiser.
“What are you hoping Santa will bring you?” and “What did you get for Christmas?” are two staple questions during the month of December. But these seem to be directed almost exclusively to kids. Adults get gifts that make their work easier. The larger microwave for mom and more powerful snow blower for dad can hardly be called toys, even if they come wrapped with a big red bow.
Have we ever asked our parents about their childhood? Have we ever wondered what was in their letter to the North Pole when they were growing up? Do we know which presents were their favorites, and why? If we inquire, we might come away quite surprised by their response.
I once asked my mother about her favorite toys at Christmas. Her reply was both sobering and shocking. She grew up during the Great Depression, so there was no such thing as toys, as in plural. There was only one. This is how she recounted her Christmas morning. After returning home from an early Mass with her father, she would wait patiently as he fetched their wooden ladder and climbed to the attic. From there he retrieved a dust-covered shoebox, which he placed in her eagerly waiting hands and wished her a Merry Christmas. She gently unraveled the white tissue paper revealing her old baby doll, the same toy she received every year. The rest of the day was spent playing with, talking to and mothering that make-believe infant until dinnertime came and the gift was returned to the rafters.
Whatever sadness mom may have felt as she watched her annual present repose to its rooftop mausoleum was replaced by her genuine anticipation for the next 25th of December, a scant 12 months away. She wasted no energy on regrets or resentments. Her focus was solely on her joy over her reunion with the doll and her gratitude for the eight hours they spent together. Honestly, I cannot recall which came as the biggest surprise to me: her having only one doll, her receiving that same doll year after year or that she was only allowed to play with her doll for one day, but still felt completely content!
My own childhood arrived during a less stringent era. Baby boomers played with toys from Christmas day until we got bored or they got broken, whichever came first. My favorite gift each year was a new model to build, usually a car or a ship. The tiny parts and sticky decals provided a challenge to my fine motor skills and afforded me a proud display when the glue and paint was dry. My favorite was the intricate rigging on the tall sails of the HMS Bounty.
Are there any bridges here? Are there any universals that we can identify about Christmas gifts across generations? We can recognize a few. The Christmas present involves an extended period of waiting which results in a joyful presence when it finally appears. The Christmas present involves the seasonal reciprocity of giving and receiving. The Christmas present involves the Incarnation virtues of generosity and gratitude. Seen from this vantage point the true Christmas present really has not changed much in two thousand and 16 years!
Holy Homework this month comes in three parts.
Part 1: Let's have a conversation with a parent or someone their age and ask them what their favorite Christmas present was when they were growing up.
Part 2: Let's display a picture of what our favorite gift was as a child or, if it hasn't been broken, post a “selfie” with it explaining why it was tops.
Part 3: Let's spend a few prayerful moments exploring how presents in the past and presents today, though separated by years, still have much in common.
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