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Monday, December 19, 2016

How Giving Children Less May Bless Them More

from Amish wisdom website
I still remember how magical the number 25 seemed on the December calendar in the living room of my childhood home. Our farm family, consisting of two hard-working parents and nine children, was dirt poor, but we celebrated Christmas in a way that could have warmed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

Yet by today’s standards it was bare beyond belief. 

So why did we experience such a breath-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, sleep-denying anticipation of Christmas day?

Like other Amish families in our community, we had no Christmas tree, hung no holiday wreaths, displayed no Christmas lights. There were some pine cones and evergreen branches decorating our mantles and window sills, but that was about it. 

The carefully wrapped presents we had made or bought from our meager means were kept in hiding until Christmas morning. We each knew better than to look for such treasures in the weeks prior to the 25th. Snooping would have spoiled the fun and diminished the pleasure of our Advent waiting, wondering and guessing. 

The one gift from our parents we could always count on was a plate loaded with hard candy, nuts and an orange for each of us children. What made it priceless was that it was entirely our own, to be savored at leisure or consumed that very day if we wished. Other gifts from our parents were always a surprise, and especially in earlier years, were often homemade. 

For example, my older siblings remember that once during the Depression (just before my time) my mother made each child a pair of mittens from some reused flannel material. That was their main present. At other times there were homemade rag dolls or doll clothes, or hand made toy tractors or blocks. And it was not unusual to receive practical gifts like socks, scarves or gloves as well.

In later years there might be jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, a set of Tinkertoys or other inexpensive playthings to be shared. Once, wonder of wonders, my Dad splurged on a small wind-up train set for the whole family to enjoy--including himself, of course, an avid train lover and still a child at heart.

Since our trips to town were few and our allowances non-existent, we siblings often made things for each other, like a scrapbook of pictures, an embroidered handkerchief, or a wooden knickknack of some kind, carefully sanded and varnished. Or we gathered up our meager savings and shopped at one the of 5 & 10 cent stores in Waynesboro or Staunton. We knew that each small gift would be cause for great celebration. 

Family devotions on Christmas morning always included the reading of a nativity text, the timeless tale of poor folks like ourselves who were caught up in an event that still heralded “good tidings of great joy” 2000 years later. And like every other morning of the year, we knelt together in our living room as my father led in a prayer of blessing.

Today, when I compare these memories with our current Christmases, involving grandchildren surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper and boxes after having opened an abundance of battery-operated and other purchased items, I can’t help wonder who really had the most fun.

With fewer possessions, it takes very little to provide a bundle of pleasure. Each gift is priceless. Add a few more, and the result is even more delight.  But at some point the pleasure curve peaks, levels, and may actually decline. In our efforts to give our children and grandchildren everything we didn’t have, we may fail to give them some of the good things we did have, like experiencing great blessing in receiving small gifts.  

And like a greater capacity for joy itself.

This is adapted from the column I wrote for the Winter, 2011, issue of LIVING magazine.
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