Dad’s Christmas dilemma

"What's your favorite time of the year?" I asked my 7-year-old son the other day. Without a pause, he nearly shouted, "Christmas Eve."

Fellow dads, listen up.

We can read our kids' excitement in two starkly different ways. How we hear and act on these words in the remaining days of Advent will determine whether you and I are roadkill of the $600 billion annual consumer Christmas juggernaut or protagonists in steering our families to the heart of Christmas.

One way to hear my son - and how I heard him at first - is to assume that Christmas is all about his list. After all, he gave me multiple drafts of it as early as Thanksgiving. By my math, his two-page list topped $700 (including three NFL jerseys), were I to somehow fulfill it.

Let's call this way of responding to our kids' Christmas hopes the "surface approach."

This approach is content to stay at the material surface. But maybe we dads are, by nature, materialists. We have an innate drive to assist Santa; we want to provide. And we like punch lists: Here's what I need to find and buy. Taken further, I can view my kids' wish lists as tests of my fatherhood; to fall short is to risk disappointing them.

But there is a second way to hear my son's two simple words, "Christmas Eve": Let's call it the "core approach."

This approach acknowledges that my son knows there is something more to Christmas than new stuff. This is to hear in my son's words his anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ, which he gets innately because of his baptism and the spiritual formation (I hope) he absorbs year-round as my wife and I do our best.

My son even makes this clear by pinpointing "eve" (we open gifts on Christmas morning) rather than morning. His surface Christmas list is real and good, but he also glimpses the bigger picture. His response says as much. He is telling us: "My favorite moment of the year is not opening presents."

My first 15 or so Christmas Eves were spent next door at my Grammie's - who was widowed in her 50s - together with a crowd of extended family. After dinner, Grammie pulled out a box of robes and head scarves which she bought long ago on a trip to the Holy Land. We all dressed up and prepared to reenact the birth of Jesus - shepherds, Wise Men, the Holy Family, even a few pelts for the sheep. We'd all fight over the best costumes.

After corralling us, my dad would open to the second chapter of Luke. "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus …" As he read, the Nativity drama would unfold next to the fireplace in the living room, giving those dozen or so kids memories for life.

"Some beautiful, sacred memory," Dostoevsky wrote, "preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all … And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day." My memories of those living room Nativity scenes have fused with the faith I have - and attempt to share - today.

I suppose my dad could have said "no, thanks" to all that. And without that tradition, those Christmas Eves would have hovered over the surface and around the edges of Christmas with nice food, drink, desserts and family. But Dad didn't take a pass. Every year he read Luke 2 like it really mattered. A hush came over the room as he pointed us toward the core.

"Christmas Eve," my son said.

How you and I respond to our children's excitement can be both approaches. We need to work both levels - surface and core - simultaneously. The gift-giving and opening is fine and good. But of far greater importance are the specific ways we will lead our families toward the core, the very heart of Christmas.

The dad's easy out is to punch the gift list, go through the motions at Christmas Mass, and enjoy a day of smiles up there on the surface. How nice - and what a lost opportunity. So right now, let's take 10 or 15 minutes to pray over how we will handle - or invite the Holy Spirit to handle - the core of Christmas. No pressure guys, but to paraphrase one Russian dad, how we lead "may also be the instrument" of our children's salvation one day.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014