The little family came for Christmas. The resemblance to the ancient family was purely coincidental. The daddy’s name was Joseph, the mommy was pregnant, tired and uncomfortable. And my role was something like the Innkeeper’s, trying to make everybody comfortable and content even though the rain was coming down hard on Christmas Eve and expectations were high–especially my own and those of the 4-year-old, the big sister to the coming child.
She was the wild card in this Christmas story, she of the opinions, energy, charm, and uncanny sensitivity to whatever vibes are emanating from those around her. The emotional intelligence of this child is a little scary sometimes. My recent experiences with her have challenged me to manage my own feelings and responses in a way that I haven’t had to do since her mother was little and played the same mood-barometer role in the household. You could say she knows if you feel bad or good so feel good, for goodness sake! And you can’t fake it because she will see right through the false cheer.
My plan was to maintain absolute serenity while orchestrating the meals, the observances, the gifts. I knew this would require flexibility. Luminaria outside on Christmas Eve? Rain snuffed them out in half an hour so we lit them on Christmas night. The granddaughter wanted to open a gift on Christmas Eve? That could happen as long as it was the gift I’d planned for her to open first.
I was giving her several gifts centered on the Christmas story itself: a book telling the story; a coloring book; an Advent calendar for next year filled with 25 tiny books, each telling a part of the story; and, finally, a beautiful, wood-carved Nativity, which I’d coveted for myself and which would probably stay at Grandma’s house for a few years.
The book, the story of the first Christmas, came first. She thanked me and eagerly tore open this Christmas Eve gift, this harbinger of things to come. She took one quick glance at it and expressed her disappointment. “This is a boring book,” she said. “It’s just blah-blah, blah-blah.”
It’s not that the Christmas story is overly familiar to her. Her parents’ church is a small group of believers with no special program for children. She hasn’t, therefore, learned too much about the Sunday School version of Christmas, the beautiful story, the myth we adore at this time of year. The angels, the wise men, the shepherds and their sheep. The Baby Jesus, born of the lovely Virgin.
Christmas is in many ways an ideal children’s story, something nice to hold onto until we discover, through years of engagement with it, what it means to bear the light of God’s love in the world, after we encounter the difficult, demanding, mysterious, revolutionary healer Jesus of Nazareth grew up to be, the one who was executed.
So when a child takes one look at that children’s story and pronounces it, in her own way, BS, what do you do?
She was right on several levels. First, on the aesthetic level. I’d looked for a beautiful version of the story, illustrated with great art, but I hadn’t found one. The best I could do was a colorful, happy-faced version from a Christian bookstore that exhibits schlocky taste in most of its products. So this may have had the look of a boring book. And the narration was rather clunky as well, although there’s no way she could have known this because she can’t read and I hadn’t read one word of it to her.
And then there was the whole question of whether Christianity itself is a story for children, beyond the basic message of love. Love from God, love from family, love from and for others. We are Anabaptists, members of a believers’ church that holds the Christian faith as a matter of adult choice. How important is it for a 4-year-old to know “the Christmas story”?
So okay. This Grandma could be flexible. Religious education could take other forms. I set the book aside.
But this Grandma needed to maintain her serenity and I was having trouble going to sleep that night, as my plans for next day’s meal jumbled with the sleeping arrangements, and the prospect of my big gift to her (and myself), the Nativity, being a total bust.
Well, friends, I prayed. I prayed for Jesus to come to me, bearing peace and sleep. And lo and behold this happened. I slept and was given serenity that bore me through the next days, without a trace of the usual holiday hostess stress.
Toward the end of the little family’s stay, the granddaughter began playing with the Nativity, which, until then, had taken distant second place to the Elsa-of-Frozen doll the other grandmother had given her. She combined the humble stable with a palatial luminary, where she gave Jesus’s mommy a soft bed to sleep on. She named the baby “Jesus Rosie” because she wanted him to be a girl. She identified at least two of the Wise Men as women. Good for her.
And then she began asking for the Christmas story book. When we found it, she stationed herself on my lap and we read it. When it came time to pack up the gifts she was going to take home–some would stay here–she chose to take the story book with her.
Her decisions are mysterious to me but this is what I sensed. She had learned something about graciousness, about giving things a chance. And I had learned something about grace, about not pushing and planning everything but letting the small miracles of Spirit happen in their own way.