And so we have come, through Balmex and strained peas, through training pants and Teletubbies and bouncy seats, to this, my son's fourth Christmas.
Everything is different. Up to now, Christmas was something that happened to Henry. Toddling about in his flannel jumper, he was like a tiny figure in a snow globe; each December, he would raise his face and cup his fat little hands as tinsel and gumdrops fell softly about. He left cookies next to the wood stove and spoke reverently of reindeer games. He sang a jangled "Jingle Bells" and squealed at the Grinch. The toys that appeared on Christmas morning--stack'em blocks and Tonka trucks--they were gravy. It was the magic that mattered.
This year, Henry has come into his own as an American consumer. I don't know how it happened. Perhaps it is simply the hunter-gatherer in him, hoarding Furbies against the hard winter ahead. Maybe it's Disney's doing--a subliminal message delivered by Buzz Lightyear, triggering the neurons that cry out, I Want That. I don't know; I only know that some milestone has passed, some rite of passage has occurred, and all of a sudden my child is Lucy Van Pelt, hunting down the biggest, shiniest, garishest aluminum tree in the lot.
It started innocently enough. One night soon after Thanksgiving, Henry crawled into my lap for his bedtime story. He was damp from his bath and smelled of warm cotton and baby shampoo. His favorite book of the moment concerned the adventures of one Lyle the Crocodile, who lives on East 88th Street, and eats Turkish caviar. Lyle was a favorite of mine when I was little, and I looked forward to reading about the reptile's involvement with the nefarious Victor Valenti, star of stage and screen. Henry, however, gave me a business-like look and pointed at the toy catalog he'd brought upstairs. Curled up in my lap, he deftly turned the pages and pointed to the Jungle Safari Pinball game, the junior drum set and the Meteor Rocket Kit. "I want that," he said. "And that. And that. And that."
I took it calmly. We discussed the pros and cons of a Meteor Rocket Kit and I suggested, weakly, that Henry consider what he might give other people for Christmas. Several days later I caught him standing in the driveway, peering up at the steep tin roof of our house. "Mama," he said speculatively, "if Santa falls off the roof and breaks his leg or cracks his head or something, will we still get toys?" I said yes, but that we would visit him at the hospital and bring him eggnog and draw pictures on his cast. ("And, Mama," said this child of a lawyer, "would we be in trouble and have to give Santa money?")
Even this I found only vaguely horrifying, since after all my child was simply putting Santa through a small exercise in logic, the same logic that will one day jettison the jolly old elf for good. I was less happy about a trip to the toy store we took a few days later. While I shopped for a birthday present, Henry disappeared into the action-figure aisle, where another little boy was already playing with a Power Ranger.
(My son is pathetic about superheroes, he loves them so. Most of the stuffed animals in our house have assumed super status, as in "Suuper Pooh Bear to the Rescue!" Henry loves super-villains too, and the more grotesquely villainous the better. I have a clause in my parenting contract exempting me from all contact with comic books, but Henry and his father frequently bond over the talents of the big guys--Spider-Man and Batman--as well as such lower-tier humanoids as Mysterio and The Human Torch.)
Anyway, when I found my child, he had pulled an army of superheroes and superhero accessories from the shelves and arranged them in a kind of Maginot-Line formation against the other little boy's super-villain forces. The dark side appeared to have the upper hand, what with its various decapitating and brain-sucking powers. Henry was too blissed out to care, though, and when he saw me coming around the corner he stood up with this face like a refugee watching the bread truck pull in. "Oh, oh, oh!" he said, wielding a souped-up Batmobile, "I need this!" The other little boy leaned over Henry Kissinger-like to offer advice. "Don't ask for it now," he said soto voce. "Ask for it for Christmas. That's when you can get it, because that's when you get lots of stuff, because that's the whole point of Christmas."
Henry peered up at me. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause" played softly in the background. The Batmobile's chrome bumper winked. "Yeah, Mama," he said. "It's the whole point."
Christmas, in its tinselfied American splendor, ranks up there with the Inquisition as a black mark against Christianity. I say this humbly, since my own childhood is Exhibit A. My parents believed in extravagance, in the crush of stuff, and there are home movies to prove it. In each one, behind our blinking, lit-up faces, there's a wall of merchandise: Atari games, golf clubs, fuzzy slippers, snow skis, ant farms, Hot Wheels. We got so much sports equipment and candy, so many toys and clothes and books, it piled up around the tree and spilled over into a separate room. Tucked into a corner of the garlanded mantel there was a tiny nativity scene, but the camera never caught it.
I've always been sure I wouldn't celebrate Christmas that way. Not for me the demoralized plastic greenery, the mall Santas looking pouchy and thievish, the stuff. Once, years before I had children, I went Christmas shopping with a friend and her six-year-old daughter. As we watched, the girl wrestled an oversized stuffed kitty-cat from the shelves, slung it over her shoulder like a gutted boar and announced, savagely, "I want this. For me. For Christmas." My friend looked helpless, struck down by the brute force of her daughter's wants. She was like a bush mother whose child had returned from her first hunt, marked with blood and emboldened with the heritage of her tribe.
I vowed then and there (and many times since) that, for my children, Christmas would be different. I wasn't shooting for a Santa-free Christmas, merely one that kept him in his place. I wanted Christmas to be about the magic of the heavenly host, the Epiphany, the baby Jesus.
I had no idea how hard it would be. Before you have children, you are righteous as a Salem judge. It takes the average human infant about two years to reduce you to a husk of a human being, stripped of lofty ambitions. I had step-children first, sweet kids with modest expectations about the holidays. I shopped for them like there was no tomorrow. Now Henry is here, and baby Rosie, and it is only with rigorous discipline that I resist buying every T-Rex and fuzzy bunny on the shelf. Against the roar of a Batmobile, the heavenly host can seem a distant music.
Why is this? Why do believing parents have such a hard time making Christ's birth the focus of their children's Christmas? One answer, I think, lies in the energy we spend imploring small children to be rational. The emotional life of toddlers swings so hard and so fast between extremes of fear, longing, affection and dislike that parents are forced to become hard-core empiricists, begging their children to take stock of obvious truths and be reasonable. "Has Mama ever left you at school overnight?" we say. Or, shining a flashlight into the closet, "You see? No monsters." It is not only awkward but dangerous to introduce an exception to this rule, a thing--God--that is real but cannot be seen.
Another answer is that while Christmas is a story of birth and joy and hope, it is only chapter one. Children can be counted on to ask, "What happened next?" If your children are very small, it is difficult to negotiate the chapter on Easter. There is human evil, blood, agony. The death and Resurrection are trickier than Epiphany, and not just for little kids.
Finally, there is the danger that the religious holiday will totally eclipse the secular bonanza. It's a bona fide threat. The more a person's faith develops, the more it demands, and tenets far more sacred than Santa Claus tend to fall by the wayside.
This can be good or bad. Many sane and affectionate families celebrate Christmas without stockings and presents. On the other hand, I remember doing a story once in Tyrrell County and meeting a woman whose disavowal of all commercial aspects of Christmas seemed almost vindictive, part of a larger bitterness. She told that one year her daughter brought home a candy cane and was sent to the woodshed. One day I went with her to the drug store to pick up a prescription and while we were waiting an odd thing happened. A display of plastic reindeer, stacked next to a ceramic nativity scene, toppled, chipping off a piece of baby Jesus' face. The woman turned to me without missing a beat and said, "That there is Satan's work."
I'm guessing it won't get any easier, as the years pass, to teach my son the Christmas story. Not just a word here and there about a shining star and a manger, but the whole story, and what it means to those who believe. So one night we put aside the toy catalog and Lyle the Crocodile and read a book about Jesus' birth.
Henry was surprisingly receptive. He liked the Magi and the angels and the shepherds, and he thought it was cool that Mary and Joseph got to spend the night in a barn with cows.
"But Mama," Henry said at the end of the story, "what does the baby Jesus save you from?"
"From the part of you that wants to do bad things," I said.
"Like when I tried to dump Rosie out of the baby swing?"
"Just like that."
"And also he fights the bad guys, right?"
Henry jumped down out of my lap, assumed his best gladiator stance and yelled, "It's Super Jesus to the Rescue!"
It's a beginning.