little boy on mini gliderAs I write this, Thanksgiving is almost upon us. I feel as though I am standing on a precipice of sorts, waiting to be pushed over into the rush of the season. I’ve already received my Black Friday Preview Sale emails. I’ve added BUY BREAKFAST CASSEROLES to my calendar for December 23rd. And on top of all of the other “ambitions” I have for the season, I am determined to give my family gifts they actually want.

Last year gift-giving was kind of a bust at Casa Condon. I was working full time and pregnant. So I just got online and proceeded to order the whole internet. My husband was probably dealt the worst hand. He had casually mentioned that he might like to get into running. So I ordered him a Fitbit, two sets of running clothes, and a subscription to Runner’s Magazine. I know, super fun right? “Happy Christmas, Honey! Here’s your New Year’s Resolution wrapped with a bow of agenda and self-righteousness!”

And then, there was our son Neil. St. Agenda also masqueraded as St. Nick around our house last year. My intense work schedule meant that not only did I have no time to buy our son anything, I also felt super guilty about it. So I got on one of those websites that sends you a barrage of cheap toy emails and basically ordered their warehouse. I did not really ask Neil what he wanted. I just figured that our house is 73% plastic toys as it is, so I might as well add to the crop.

The bottom of the barrel moment was when Neil got his long hoped for bike. Around our neighborhood I had seen loads of kids on those pedal-less Strider bikes. The idea is that you should learn to scoot your feet, raise them, and then glide. This is great because it teaches a kid to balance on a bike without me having to put any effort into teaching him that life skill myself. Love it. Besides, one of the neighborhood moms told me they were “all the rage in Europe.” You mean I can buy my kid a toy and feel French?! Sign me up.

After a somewhat abysmal reaction to his stocking, I had placed all my hope in the yellow Strider bike placed beautifully in our living room with a red bow on top. Our son furrowed his brow, climbed on, looked up at my husband and said, “Daddy, Santa forgot the pedals.” To which I replied enthusiastically, “But Neil! It’s European!” He had just turned 3. So, he walked it around the living room a bit. And then sort of gave up. Yes, it was that sad.

When I reflect back on last year, the push for my version of their happiness came from a good place. I wanted my husband to feel encouraged and supported in his health. And I needed my toddler to know that Mama loves him even if she only sees him for 1 hour and 15 minutes a day. Like many women, I felt pulled in two distinctly different directions: life outside the home and life within it. And while as a hospital chaplain I could not walk into my patients’ rooms, throw in a wrapped present, and hope for the best, I could do that with my family. Or so it seemed.

71dveuWdsHL._SL1500_Obviously I am far from the first to try to show my love for someone through material goods. It may not be a particularly original practice but, my God, has it become more justifiable. A simple holiday website perusal will yield slogans like “Show your family you care” or “Make this Christmas magic.” Wait, so all I have to do to emit love (and squash these guilty feelings) is to buy a monogrammed shaving kit? Or a Caillou doll? That is so much easier than the alternative. Unfortunately, as I learned last year, it doesn’t really work.

There is, of course, a whole School of Christmas Purity Thought that says that our need to give gifts is totally misplaced. That we were given the greatest gift in Jesus Christ, so we do not need to fill the space underneath the tree. I totally agree. But I get a little squeamish when adults use that logic to theologize giving children gifts (or not) on December 25th. It just feels like another, albeit more holy way of inserting our own agenda into the equation.

We cannot sanctify ourselves by limiting our children’s exposure to the toy aisle at Target. That is not a therapy or theological ditch I am willing to die in. So since I am not interested in Causing My Kid More Grief Based on my Own Anxious Agenda, the Sequel, I am buying Christmas presents again this year. Only, my approach has been altered.

Last week I sat our son Neil down and decided to write out a legit Christmas Letter to the aforementioned delinquent S. Claus. I’m actually surprised he decided to be on speaking terms with the Jolly Old Elf yet again. But he was so enthusiastic to have me to himself, intently listening. I was not looking forward to writing down his list of worldly wants. If I’m being really honest, I was judging my tiny son before he ever opened his mouth. “Here comes the materialism,” I was thinking to myself, “Thanks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles commercials.”

And then, he started to gleefully list off everything and anything he had ever wanted or dreamed about. And he did not stop for a full 15 minutes. Here are a few highlights:

-Spaceship filled with Candy
-Curious George Robot
-Real Puppy
-Fake Puppy
-Paw Patrol Puppy
-Winter Sweater with a headlight and control
-An apple
-A ladder to catch apples
-Packages of oatmeal
-His own coaster that no one else can use (for beverages)
-A cup full of ice cream
-A bike with red and blue on it
-Wonder Woman (he pronounced “Woman Woman”) cell phone for Mama

When you ask a 4 year old what they want for Christmas, you probably aren’t going to hear a litany of expensive excess. Instead, they are going to tell you about their deepest desires. Namely, they want to be listened to and loved. To eat ice cream. And to be given a bike that has no agenda.

Santa Claus was a failure last year because Neil felt as though he had not been heard. I needed to feel better about my ability to be a good mother and wife at a time when I felt the burden of not doing either very well. So I gave my husband a running neurosis disguised as health, and I gave our son a way for me to outsource his learning to ride a bike. Retrospectively, I think I wanted them to know I cared about them. But gifts are often the worst way to communicate such a sentiment.

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a change to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God… But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

I asked Neil to write a list with me because I felt the need to redeem Christmas this year. Instead, Neil redeemed the gift giving process for me. He was sweet, funny, and surprisingly generous. And this year, I actually listened. I went online and ordered him a coaster with his photo on it. I’ll be putting packages of oatmeal in his stocking. And underneath the tree this year will be a bike. With pedals on it. Right next to a bottle of bourbon for my beloved husband.