If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you’ve heard me mention Amy Julia Becker. Amy Julia and I were, first, friends by default, as our husbands lived together in college. But since, we have formed a sweet and separate friendship, where she’s encouraged me at all the right times in my writing. She’s recently published her second book — a beautifully thoughtful reflection of finding God in the midst of parenting children. It is called: Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most. I love that I get to share this writing space with her just a few days before Christmas, as I think this narrative (nope, it’s not a prescriptive parenting guide) is a perfect gift for the one who wants to slow up and consider life in God amid parenting.
And now, hear from this friend …
Holidays and celebrations start early in our household. Marilee, about to turn four, is already discussing next year’s Halloween costume. (This morning, she wondered aloud about being the baby Jesus. Her six-year old brother William pointed out that she would have to be wheeled around in a manger, so she went back to the Cat in the Hat.) They discuss the Thanksgiving decorations in August. You can probably imagine the long lead up to Christmas.
They began writing lists in October. All three hang on the kitchen wall. William’s begins with an array of electronic devices—iPad, iPod, iPhone (none of which he will be receiving)—and then moves on to small animals—fish, bird, gerbil, hamster—before enumerating the more typical Lego-type options. Marilee’s is shorter, but more complicated. It makes reference to items like, “the skirt Layla was wearing at school today.” Our oldest child, Penny, almost nine, kept it simple: Books. Board games. (She also asked for a baby brother or sister, but we are ignoring that request.)
In other words, we entered Advent with material desires clearly stated. As a mom who has always wrestled with the commercial aspects of Christmas, in recent years I have stopped seeing my children’s expectations of presents as being in conflict with our celebration of the incarnation. I’ve even begun to see the two as interrelated. Our kids see a direct connection between Jesus’ birth as a gift to the world and the gifts they receive on Christmas morning. They also see feasting and presents as a crucial way to celebrate, and it seems fitting that our birthday party for Jesus is the biggest and best of the year.
Still, Advent is a season of preparation, a season of waiting. We have one type of waiting figured out. It’s the waiting with eager anticipation for December 25th, the anticipation that prompts Marilee to ask every morning, “Is it Christmas tomorrow?” But Advent also involves a different type of waiting, the sorrowful expectation that God will indeed bring good news by showing up in our messy, painful, broken lives. The lyrics of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” hint at the contemplative and even mournful season practiced by Christians of old.
Now, Christmas lists and “Holly Jolly Christmas” and sitting on Santa’s lap at the local fire station don’t come close to conveying that sense of longing for Jesus to return in fullness to this broken world. I want our kids to at least have a glimpse of the expectation that arises out of scarcity and brokenness, out of vulnerability and need. I can’t say I’ve figured out a way for Advent to supersede the festivities that begin well before Christmas day, but we have integrated a new tradition into our Advent practice this year. It is a tradition we will certainly continue, because it may have taken us all one step closer to knowing Jesus as both the one we celebrate, and the one we long to see again.
We decided to each give away one thing every day during Advent. The idea came from my friend Margot Starbuck, who made a video about her family giving away 1000 things. We decided to start with 25 (or so) each. I thought our kids might resist, but so far they have liked this tangible expression of faith and hope. We’ve created bags and bags of giveaway clothing. Piles of stuffed animals. Stacks of DVDs. Boxes of books. Each child offers a different reason for this new practice: “Because there are people less fortunate than we are,” says William. “To make room for the stuff we’ll get at Christmas,” says Penny. “Because you said to give some things away,” says Marilee.
I don’t know that our children will connect this physical act of giving away stuff to the gifts they will open on Christmas morning, but I hope this practice has deepened all of our understanding of the spirit of this season. Yes, a season of feasting and celebration and jumping up and down with delight. And also a season to recognize the disparity between what we have been given and the needs of others in our community. A season to let “every heart prepare him room,” a season to make space for Jesus in our households and in our lives.
Next Wednesday evening, we will gather at my parents’ house for a birthday party for Jesus. Penny will read the Christmas story out loud while William and Marilee arrange a nativity scene to represent the words. And I will remind them that we have been giving things away, just as God gave away his son to us.
I will remind them that we have been making room, and that Jesus offers to come into our lives to stay. And then we will sing Happy Birthday. We will eat chocolate cake. The next morning, we will open lots of presents. And I hope they, and I, will have a better sense of what Christmas is all about, giving and receiving, longing and rejoicing, God with us in our need and in our abundance.
I hope we will be better prepared to sing with joy, for the Lord has come.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most (Zondervan). Find out more at amyjuliabecker.com.