If it’s a secret – then it’s a poorly kept one; I love presents (getting them… although giving them is fun too.) I’m so grateful for Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, which I have never read but understand validates my desire to receive gifts (it’s how I receive love.) For my whole life I thought I was just a materialistic guy who refused to grow up, because apparently adults shouldn’t be honest about how much they LOVE getting gifts. Thankfully, my wife has picked up on this and often buys me a little something when she is out doing shopping. It doesn’t matter if it’s a chocolate bar or super cheap t-shirt from Old Navy, she often loves me with a small gift.
So you can imagine that, in my life growing up, Christmas was a pretty dang important day of the year. I did love all the stuff you are supposed to at Christmas like going to church on Christmas Eve and getting a bag of peanuts, caramels and oranges after the program. (Pause. Can you even imagine a time when PEANUTS were handed out in churches? Yikes, my allergy alerts are lighting up!) I also loved having Grandma and Grandpa or Oma and Opa join us for our family celebration, which followed immediately after we got home from church. But the anticipation of receiving something new was what made it so fun.
Fortunately for me we had a tradition that helped build the anticipation; mom and dad gave us Advent gifts! As you know, there are four Sunday’s of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, each with a spiritual significance. I never learned the spiritual significance, or maybe I just didn’t pay attention, but my parents thought these weekends were worth celebrating as well. So, each Sunday morning leading up to Christmas we would make a stop at our stockings hung on the mantle to see what small gift had been left there overnight. These stockings were eventually replaced with baskets (of all things) at the breakfast table because my brother Sam was given a bedroom where the fireplace was located, but the method of delivery didn’t matter! Because those four unique baskets always held something special.
The gifts weren’t big either. Often we would get something useful like pencils, cool erasers, or Post-It Notes and the like. One week would usually have a little toy, like a brain teaser or a magic trick. And there was always one week where we received a Christmas tree ornament. These little decorations would adorn the family tree until we left home, at which time my mom would box up all of our ornaments and send them with us so that our first Christmas tree away from home would suffer the shame of nakedness. Happily we didn’t get underwear one week like the Bergmanns next door; that would have been a complete waste of a perfectly good opportunity to receive gifts.
You might think it’s sad but I actually remember thinking that the gifts were too small. That Advent would be so much better if we got bigger gifts, but in retrospect I didn’t care all that much, the gifts blazed the trail to the real haul at Christmas. And that is the point; Advent is about anticipation and so why wouldn’t my parents help build the anticipation? Look, I get it. Our culture is materialistic and selfish, sugar crazed and indulgent, but… Advent is about anticipation and those little gifts build the anticipation towards Christmas. Can I point something out? Jesus is actually a weird, abstract thought to kids (has your toddler ever asked how Jesus can fit in your heart?) That is normal little kids are like that with everything! (How did that baby get in there? How did it get OUT?) Part of our jobs as parents is to help make abstract ideas real. Is Jesus close? Yes, most certainly, but that is why we hug our kids – it bring Jesus close.
So is Advent about anticipating the baby Jesus? Of course it is! But we can actually do things that help our kids feel what anticipation is supposed to feel like. So this year, don’t go crazy racking up debt on stuff your kids will forget about in t-minus 30 days, but do think about how you can make Christ real through meaningful gifts. Help them feel the anticipation of something big on the horizon!