I don’t know exactly when I became a Big Kid. I was the oldest child, but my brother Bob was born fifteen months later than I, and the two of us experienced childhood as a team. The third boy, Edward, came into the family when the two of us were both under seven, and the youngest, David,* arrived a few years later still. I distinctly remember the first Christmas Bob and I were treated as Big Kids who were in on the secrets of the season. Previously, putting up and decorating the tree, laying out the Lionel train track under the tree and filling stockings with toys and goodies had been Santa’s job; something that happened after we went to sleep on Christmas Eve. But this year, Ed was a toddler, and, without explanation, Bob and I were given the new Big Kids’ role. We were doing Santa’s job of setting up the tree and other Christmas surprises create the Christmas morning fantasy for little Ed. It was exciting and a little weird.
I don’t know whether I ever truly believed in the Santa story, but I sure went along with it. It’s a wonderful annual fantasy journey for children to experience in the middle of a dark, cold winter. It’s full of magic, idyllic dreams and renewed hope. On the other hand, I remember feeling somewhat relieved when I was able to give up the fantasy as a Big Kid. I knew life wasn’t really like the Santa story, and I was ready to deal more openly with the struggles of growing up in a world where you don’t just magically get what you want. On the other hand, I could still enjoy the fantasy by helping to create it for my younger brothers.
Alongside this Santa drama was the other Christmas story, the one about Mary, Joseph, Angels, Shepherds, Wise Men and JESUS. Was this just another happy fantasy tale I would have to give up now that I was a Big Kid? Honestly, I don’t remember ever having that crossover shadow of doubt in the Biblical account of Christ’s birth. I think there was something about the way my parents presented these two Christmas traditions to me that made me realize early that they were on a different level of truth, reality and significance. It’s my memory that, when my parents talked about Santa, elves, reindeer and other characters in the popular Christmas culture, they always seemed to do it with a wink, as if they were saying, “Let’s pretend, for now.” But the Birth of Jesus story was taught to me in a much more serious way, and I knew my parents believed that this was true meaning of Christmas. The Big Boy Me knew the difference.
There’s a Little Child in all of us that, thankfully, never goes away. That’s why we feel joyful when the Christmas lights start to appear after Thanksgiving. All sorts of childhood memories come flooding back, some real and some imagined. Feeling of family warmth and acceptance give us the impression that everything’s going to be all right. On some level, we actually believe that Santa’s going to come down the chimney with a bag of goodies.
But then the Big Boy Us, or the Big Girl Us, takes over: decorations to put up, cards to address and mail, shopping to do for cousins we haven’t thought about in months. We’re busy trying to create a Christmas fantasy for others, to keep the dream alive for them.
All of this is fine. But don’t forget the other Christmas Story — the true one, the one about Jesus. Little Child Me and Big Boy Me need to kneel together every Christmas and look into the manger with wonder. That’s what poet George MacDonald did during the last decade of his life. As a grown man who had gone through many of life’s ups and downs but still, childlike, embraced the simple Christmas truth, he wrote in the poem That Holy Thing:
They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* My brothers will have different memories about all of this, so I look forward to hearing from them.