December 23, 2004,
Christmas is a time of giving. And giving. And then reaching deep in your pockets past the shreds of charity that first stirred your heart when the season began, and giving still more, all while wearing a thin smile that says: "I hope Jesus sees this." Christmas is about letting people who have claims on you by virtue of blood or marriage stretch you thin. I don't feel churlish saying so; I think our Savior and let's be blunt, he started this whole thing must feel that way too.
Because I'm a closet optimist who believes that there's hope for my children despite the tangled dysfunctional weed that is our family tree, I intend to shield them from this harsh reality. Thus my wife and I struggle to contain our seething resentment over the inability of most of our relatives to stay married, which necessitates our making 80 individual visits between the hours of 9 A.M. and 9 P.M. on Christmas Day. You think Santa has a demanding job? At least he can drop off the presents while everyone is asleep. We have to make conversation with these people.
I don't want my children to see this part of Christmas until they are off our insurance and have to pick up the tab for therapy themselves. Yes, that's hypocrisy, and you're just as guilty as me. By way of making my point: Does your nativity scene depict the sheep dropping little piles of musket-ball poop?
Of course not, because some truths are better left hidden. Children learn that the world is full of poop soon enough. My boys already have I know this because it's all they talk about: their poop, my poop, whether the mailman poops and what it probably looks like. The three-year-old, Timothy, might have spent another year in innocence, but his five-year-old brother, Stephen, is teaching him the ways of the world. And when you're five, one of the most interesting things in your life is how the food you eat turns to poop of all shapes and consistencies.
The novelty of poop fades, however, at Christmas. Then its Santa Claus and Jesus, and do they know each other, Daddy, and why does Jesus want us to wait so long to open the presents under our tree, and doesn't Santa worry that somebody will shoot him when he breaks into their house?
Trust me, after eleven months of poop discussions, these queries are a piece of cake. Which brings me to my story. Every Christmas my wife and I try to help our children understand a little more about the advent of Christ. Christmas is, after all, his birthday. Sometimes we forget this while wading through crowds of angry parents and surly children, scurrying past displays of Christmas-themed thong underwear and dancing Santa dolls, and trying to remember which of our relatives is currently on the wagon and hence will not appreciate a bottle from that case of Costco shiraz that is just begging us to buy it and in one fell swoop cross twelve names off our interminable gift list.
Yes, it's the Lord's birthday, and what child doesn't understand a birthday? What a brilliant idea, I told myself as I explained it to my children while they lay gazing up at me from their beds on Christmas Eve. This leads to another lesson I've learned about Christmas: Abandon any illusion that good intentions lead to good outcomes. Getting the in-laws from both sides of the family together for an intimate Christmas dinner, for example, always sounds better than it works in practice. Getting your wife that comfy-looking yet sexy pair of booty-pant underwear, to take another purely hypothetical and totally made-up example off the top of my head, just might lead someplace unhappy. And telling your wildly imaginative children that the King of kings is about to have a birthday without thinking through the implications of that explosive concept is just asking for trouble.
"How old will he be, Daddy?"
"How old? Um, two thousand, give or take."
"But remember he is the Word, and was with God in the beginning," observed my beloved but at times meddlesome wife. "And there's some question about whether that whole seven-day creation thing was actually seven days, or something longer."
"Don't complicate things."
"Will we have a party for him?" I could almost hear the wheels spinning in Stephen's head.
"Well, in a way," I said warily.
"Yayyy, party!" Timothy clapped his hands while doing that full-body wiggle that three year-olds and puppies use to show their excitement.
"What kind of cake will you make?"
"We're not making a cake."
Stephen frowned disapprovingly. "You have to make a cake, Daddy. It's Jesus's birthday."
"Now you've done it," muttered the wife.
"Sweetie, Jesus doesn't eat cake."
"Yes he does."
"No he doesn't."
"He does if you make him one."
Timothy began to sing: "Je-sus loves me dis I know, go-nna have da birfday cake."
"Daddy, you have to make Jesus a birthday cake. A chocolate one. He likes chocolate."
"How do you know?"
"Because I like chocolate."
"You like chocolate, but how do you know Jesus doesn't like strawberry cake, or lemon pound cake?"
"You're not making things better," observed my wife and sometime help-mate.
Stephen spread out his arms in exasperation and rolled his eyes. "Daddy, Jesus likes chocolate cake because he's in my heart, and I like chocolate cake."
"No no no, listen, and I'll tell you something." Stephen had his hand up like a traffic cop halting cars. "Here's an idea you make a chocolate cake for Jesus, and then I'll eat it, and he'll have some too because he's in my heart."
"No Dad, I'm still talking. You're interrupting me, and you're supposed to say 'excuse me.'"
"That's right, Stephen. Very good!" My wife beamed at this sudden fruition in weeks of politeness training.
"I'm so very sorry, and I beg your forgiveness."
"I forgive you," Stephen said grandly. Nobody in this family gets my sarcasm. "Now, you make the chocolate cake..."
"Je-sus eat the birfday cake, go-nna have da chocklat cake..."
"...and I'll eat it and it will go down to my tummy," Stephen traced his hand down his throat and rested it on his belly, and then swirled it around wildly. "And then it will mix around in my body, and some of it will go into my heart, and then Jesus will eat it."
I sighed and looked at my wife. "I'm not going to win, am I?" She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. "Do you want to win?"
"Daddy?" Stephen said through a big sweet smile.
"Jesus is so happy that you're making him a birthday cake."
"Uh-huh, because I feel happy in my heart." He put on a serious face and nodded as he spoke. "I think it's 'cause he's happy in there."
"I'm sure he is, sweetheart."
"Je-sus gonna share da cake, go-nna give Tim-thy da cake..." Timothy unsuccessfully battled a yawn as he sang. "....ha-ppy birfday Jesus, happy birfday Jesus, ha-ppy birfday Jesus, da Bible tells me so-o-o-o-o."
We gave them each a kiss.
"Can we have the cake for breakfast?"
"We'll see. Goodnight sugar."
I quietly closed the door. "You're in luck," my wife said, "because there's a box of chocolate cake mix down there that I never made for your birthday."
I nodded. "The discounted Wal-Mart cake with the plastic cowboys on it was more thoughtful anyway."
She nodded appreciatively and gave me a kiss. Nobody in my house gets the sarcasm. "Do you need my help, because otherwise I'm going to bed. Those boys will be up early tomorrow."
"No, you go on to bed. I suppose I earned this punishment."
"Don't be such a grump. Now you've got a story to tell."
"And plenty of time to tell it."
"You've got to find some way to spend that 42 minutes of recommended baking time. And don't forget to spray the non-stick pans. That 'non-stick' part is a big fat lie." She wandered down the hall to our bedroom, running her hand through her hair as she walked. I wonder if she ever catches a glimpse of me and falls in love all over again, the way I did then.
Jesus's birthday is coming, and he's happy but hungry in Stephen's heart. So now I sit and write as the smell of cake mix transforming itself into something sweeter and more important permeates our kitchen. And I catch a glimpse of a Christmas that is better than I've let it be before, the kind of Christmas I want my children to have. How fitting that the gift I want to give them is something they're giving to me instead. Happy birthday, Jesus.
Tony Woodlief is president of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and he lives in Virginia with his wife and three sons. The story, based on his real family, is fiction. More of his writing can be found at www.tonywoodlief.com.