Friday, December 24, 2010

Sacred and secular

I help lead our church's youth Sunday school class. This week fellow leader Joy directed us through a discussion on gifts. Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas? What does all the giving and getting have to do with the birth of Jesus?

Ever since, I've been thinking about how our little family (and yours probably, too) blends the sacred and secular at Christmas. On one shelf we have a Santa and a Nativity set. A snowman and an angel.

I'm guessing those thoughts helped shaped my two Briefing columns this week -- one focused on the magical side of Christmas and the other on the faith that is the basis of the holiday.

In both, you'll find that Steve's absence plays a role. His absence is an enormous presence in our lives, and Christmas only amplifies what's missing.

You can read the columns here and here. And below.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Spirits are even brighter thanks to Santa's solution

Christmas is magical for children: lights, Santa, Elf on the Shelf, cookies, candy, the anticipation of Christmas morning.

It's that same list that makes Christmas exhausting for adults. Because we're the ones in charge of the magic.

I'm blaming self-induced make-the-magic-happen exhaustion for my poor hiding skills and judgment, which led to the Pillow Pet near disaster at our house last week.

It was late Saturday afternoon, and the kids and I were getting ready to leave the house to watch two elves and Santa parachute from the sky and land at Frisco Square.

I was walking in and out of my closet to gather jacket, scarf, hat and gloves. I should have been more guarded with the closet, which is also the secret hiding place of all Christmas gifts. I should have known that Katie would wander in and out of my room during her clingiest time of the day – when she's a little hungry, a little tired, a lot in need of attention.

She slipped in the closet while my back was turned, and that's when she spotted the heads of a penguin and monkey peeking out from beneath my clothes.

"EEEEEeeeeee!" she shrieked. "Who are those for?"

This required some quick imagination on my part. The penguin and monkey were to be gifts for Katie and Cooper, from Santa. Katie, in fact, had asked for two things from Santa – Legos and a Pillow Pet. I couldn't bear to spoil her surprise a week before Christmas.

So I lied. (Isn't that what Christmas is all about?)

"They are for the angel tree at church."

That one statement led to two challenges: (1) managing Katie's disappointment and (2) finding Pillow Pets to replace the ones we would give away.

Katie's disappointment was occasionally tempered by her sense of altruism.

"I really want a Pillow Pet. I mean really, I really do," she would say with great dramatic flair, followed by "But everyone wants a Pillow Pet, so it's good we're giving them away."

She forgot about the penguin and monkey for a couple of hours, while she was immersed in more Christmas magic – watching the parachuting North Pole people and tubing down a fake snow hill and enjoying thousands of lights blinking in unison to music.

After we were home and both children were asleep, I needed to work on finding duplicate Pillow Pets.

Now, if you want a bumblebee or a ladybug or a dog, you're in luck. There are piles of them. If you want a penguin, the exact kind Katie requested from Santa, your options are limited.

I finally talked to a drugstore employee who confirmed the existence of a penguin in her store, not far from our house.

Next, since I'm the only adult at home, I relied on the magic of friends. Layne hurried to the drugstore (they were about to close), bought the replacement penguin and monkey and drove them to my house. In the glow of my street's Christmas lights, I handed him cash through the car window, and he handed me two plastic bags filled with fur.

I found a more secure hiding place for the two new pets and moved the discovered pets to the family room, ready for their transport to church the next morning.

Katie cuddled the angel-tree penguin all during the drive to church. She admired its fuzzy yellow beak and shiny plastic eyes.

When it was time to give away the pet, she hesitated. She squeezed it tight. She whimpered a bit before releasing the animal.

"I really want one," she whispered.

I hugged Katie and told her that we were making magic for someone who really needed it. And maybe Santa would do the same for her.


Kids' spiritual differences are reason to be thankful

I am the blessed parent of two old, spiritual souls.

And I am the often-challenged parent of two old, spiritual souls – because they are distinct souls with personalities and beliefs that diverge as often as they converge.

Katie and I were recently reading a children's Christmas book. It concluded with a sentence something like: "And being together with friends and family is the true meaning of Christmas."

The end?


"Oh no, it's not," my 5-year-old said with disdain. "The true meaning of Christmas is God and Jesus."

She is firm in her beliefs. She doesn't robotically repeat what's she's heard – she genuinely believes that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth, the life.

She's not only confident in her beliefs; she's eager to share them.

This week I took Katie and Cooper to the post office to apply for passports. Because I'm the only living parent, we needed to arrive with extra forms and certified death certificates. On the drive, I reminded the children that the post office employee might have questions about Daddy.

"I wish Daddy didn't die," Katie said. "But if you believe in God and Jesus, when you die you wake up again in heaven and live forever."

I keep a cross on my bedroom desk. It belonged to Steve. Katie likes to stop at the desk to pick up the cross and trace its edges with her fingers.

On a recent stop, she held the small cross to her chest, looked up and said, "Daddy, as long as people believe in the cross, you'll be alive in heaven."

Cooper does not always share his sister's confidence. He often questions Christian doctrine and analyzes our religion's tenets.

When he was 3, he had (understandable) trouble with the Crucifixion. He would ask over and over why God would let his son die. Our explanations were never enough.

Last week, when it was just the two of us in the minivan, he asked about the divinity of Jesus.

"If Jesus is God, and Jesus was worshipping God, then wasn't he worshipping himself, and isn't that bad?"

I was unable to consult theologians or even Google from the driver's seat, so I answered the best I could. I told him that I thought Jesus on Earth served as a model, to show humans how to worship God during a time when God thought we needed help.

He's a student of Greek mythology and struggles with the idea that an ancient civilization got it all wrong – all the ideas about multiple gods and explanations for the way the world works.

What if we have it all wrong?

It's no easy task, this parenting thing.

If I wanted to take the easy way out, I might tell Cooper that he must believe what I believe. (Or maybe just send him to his younger sister.)

Parenting shortcuts seldom work, though, so instead we discuss and read, and I encourage Cooper to share his doubts.

We talk about the role that God played in their Daddy's death. Cooper wonders why God couldn't save Steve. I counter that God was with him while he suffered the effects of cancer not controlled by God. Katie reminds us that Daddy is alive today, spending eternity in heaven with God – and Jesus.

We are three people with three different perspectives on the faith that binds us. Tonight we will gather in our church's sanctuary to celebrate and light candles in community, and tomorrow we will open gifts and share a special meal. We will give thanks for the birth of Jesus, his example and sacrifice – and I will give thanks for being entrusted with the care of two old, spiritual souls.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

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