Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I remember being six years old, standing on a riser in an outlandish getup, and singing “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” But that was a vicious lie. For one thing, I didn’t lose my first baby tooth until almost two years later. For another, all I really wanted for Christmas was a Batmobile. A big one.

Early on, I showed promise as a communicator. I could drop hints like the Enola Gay could drop kilotons, and on this occasion I held nothing back. Each afternoon, when “Batman” came on TV, I sat bolt upright and watched for a shot of the Batmobile. Then I’d bounce up and down, stab my finger at the TV, and make a noise like a litter of guinea pigs startled by a gunshot. My mom told me a dozen or more times, “All right, we get it.” Finally, she threatened to change the channel, which shut me up like magic. The appropriate-sized box appeared up under the Christmas tree, and I figured the fix was in.

On Christmas morning, I snatched up my box of joy, but the second I did, my heart sank. Remember how you could tell from the weight that a present wasn’t a toy, but a sweater? I clutched it, unopened, turned my little kid sad eyes on my parents, and clicked on the high-beams. “Honey, that’s your present from Aunt Della,” said my mom. “You’ve got other presents.” She picked one up and handed it to me. It was tiny, but it had heft, so I shucked it in a few quick motions.

They’d gotten me the Hot Wheels Batmobile.

It had about one molecule of cool to it, but it paled next to my dream, the same way a single pizza flavored goldfish cracker just can’t hold its own against a family-sized pizza with everything. How were my Batman and Robin action figures supposed to fit inside it? Didn’t my folks understand that Batman and Robin had places to go?

I almost missed out on the rest of Christmas that year, because I fell so deeply into a sulk that no one could stand to be around me. And that would’ve been a shame, because it was clear to me that Christmas wasn’t about presents. It was just as much about cookies and pie. It was also about Christmas TV specials that came on only once a year, back before TiVo, DVDs, or even VHS. And it was about snuggling up on the couch with my entire family while my mom read the Christmas story out loud from the Bible.

The longer I live, the more TV-related inventions I can rack up that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Not only that, but I also appreciate more every year how bankrupt is the whole “Get get get” mindset into which so many of us fall every Christmastime. Especially I find that the whole present-buying mission is tangled up with a sizable dose of mind-reading, which is a disaster waiting to happen. One December I took my seven-year-old nephew Christmas shopping for his little sister, and I watched carefully to see what he picked up. Later that night, after he went to bed, I returned to the same toy store and chose the three or four things he’d admired the most. On Christmas morning, I scored several big hits in a row, but as he picked up his last present, I said “I think you’re especially going to like this one!” With one of those high notes of little kid ecstasy in his voice, he said, “It’s a camera?” And my smile froze, and with my voice trailing off, I said, “Ah. I, uh … didn’t know you wanted a camera.” And his whole bubble of inflated expectations suddenly popped, as it does, at the first sign of disappointment. It was the Batmobile letdown all over again, only this time I was the giver who fell short.

But it turned out okay, because we’d done so much more than rip open presents on Christmas morning. We went out and looked at decorations around the neighborhood. At one point, he saw an airplane’s blinking lights, and shouted “Maybe that’s Santa Claus!” We teamed up to bake a mess of Christmas cookies – only chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made that were slice and bake – most of which went into his parents’ and sister’s stomachs, and only two of which we saved for Santa and the reindeer. (But he spent a lot of time deciding which cookies were ones he wanted to put aside for them!)

And just a few minutes after everyone had opened their last present, I opened the Bible and read the Christmas story aloud, with a nephew snuggled up on one side and a niece on the other, both staring into the distance, lost in the world of the story. They asked questions about Mary and Joseph, the stable, the star, the angels, and I remember easily a dozen questions about Mary’s donkey. For the record, I have no idea what its name was, or whether she petted it when it felt sad. If Dr. Crow or Dr. Heine knows, I hope they’ll do the right thing and speak up.

And I think we do that to our Father far too often. James 4:3 says “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” We do it year-round, but we cheat ourselves even more when we do it at Christmas. Our Father, who chose the weak and humble to throw down the proud and mighty, who delights to do mighty things that we could never see coming, gave His people exactly what He’d promised, and because they expected something different, something in line with their own wrong motives, they rejected the Father’s gift and were disappointed. I pray we’ll make this the year that we don’t fall victim to that mistake.

(The editor of the Northwest Christian University school paper, the Mishpat, asked me a few weeks back to write something about Christmas. This is what I submitted. It ran in the current edition. I'm putting it up here so folks from other locales can see it as well.)

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