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Cancel Christmas?

Someone recently sent me screenshots of a Facebook conversation on a public forum and asked my opinion. I scrolled through — horrified — and had so many things to say.


The original question posed to this large online group of women was whether anyone had ever “canceled” Christmas due to the poor behavior of their children. She wanted to know if there was a precedent for taking down the tree and withholding all presents or if she should just not give them gifts from “Santa.”


The question prompted plenty of lively conversation and, to date, over 200 comments light the screen, many tapped out by mothers with their own complaints about bratty, ungrateful children who didn’t deserve to celebrate Christmas and some with tales of how they’ve retaliated against poor behavior in the past. One suggested wrapping empty boxes and letting the kids think they were gifts and then tossing those boxes in the fireplace one by one, to burn with every transgression. Another told how she wrapped the actual gifts but put them all in a trash bag and made the children earn them back with their good behavior.


These are very, very bad ideas. And there is certainly no place for them in a Catholic household.


As I write, I hear the famous lyrics about how Santa is making his list and checking it twice, and I acknowledge that this column cannot possibly discuss Santa as well as the question at hand. I know that there is a cultural connection between good behavior and gifts. But really? Is that really why a parent gives gifts to her child? Is that the actual message of Christmas — that one must earn the tokens of affection? That love is a reward?


Maybe we all need to take a deep breath, step away from the constant barrage of media imploring us to buy and consider for a few moments why we give gifts at all. We tell our children the story of the Magi, the first to bear gifts on Christmas. And it’s a beautiful story of homage and glory given to the newborn king. But the first Christmas gift was actually Christ himself. G.K. Chesterton offers some wise theological underpinnings to go with brightly wrapped packages under a Christmas tree.


“The idea of embodying goodwill — that is of putting it into a body — is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before he is born in the first movements of the sages and the star.”


We give presents to embody goodwill. We wrap tokens of our charity toward another human being. For some, gift-giving comes easily and naturally. God bless their joyful effusiveness. For some, it takes a concerted effort to execute all the steps of planning and purchasing and packaging. God bless their diligent faithfulness. In either scenario, the presents are the cheerful physical manifestation of something more: the actual embodiment of goodwill we are called to be.


For the Christian mother, Christmas is a sweet opportunity to make tangible to children the genuine goodwill she has toward them. The presents are handy, certainly, but the point is that we are all called to be like Christ, who is the embodiment of goodwill. We are to make gifts of ourselves to one another. Then, we can also give presents as an extension of the goodwill we live out with our very lives.


We don’t withhold that goodwill, contingent on the child’s behavior. Christ came for a world full of undeserving people. None of us deserves Christmas.


To the parent who wants to toss the gifts in the fire or hold them hostage dependent on a child’s performance, I suggest that perhaps the chid’s behavior would improve if his mother concentrated instead on her own poor example. To me, these are households that should put genuine goodwill and sacrificial love at the top of their Christmas lists and then endeavor to give those gifts freely. Mothers who focus less on controlling and demanding behavior worthy of presents and more on loving well might be pleasantly surprised to see how responsive their children are to grace given freely.


Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019