“The notes I handle no better than many pianists.
But the pauses between the notes-
Ah, that is where the art resides.
-Artur Schnabel, legendary classical pianist
Like the rests in a musical score, the Christmas season and its attendant Holy Nights arrive each year, holding out to each of us a mysterious gift: a “pause” from the routine of our daily lives that has the possibility of revealing untold treasure. How we accept and work creatively with this pause can make all the difference for our own and our children’s well-being. Most children have incredible patience if not rushed from one activity to the next. They depend on the adults around them to model a true honoring of this special time of year. While the outer culture lures us up and out to shop for gifts, visit Santa, or see holiday movies, the natural world and this special season call for an inward mood of “silent nights,” patient anticipation, joyful preparation and savored celebration.
The imagination is kindled at this time of year, as little eyes widen at the sound of reindeer hoofs on rooftops or sleigh bells in the snow. Very little, if anything, is necessary to spark this magic, and in fact, the less outer clutter there is, the more alive grows the rich inner world of the child. It’s easy for adults to forget what this phase of childhood was like – when everything was novel and exciting, and all things were possible. The 17th century composer, Henry Purcell, related how overwhelming it was for him the first time he saw tinsel. Consider how much more “tinsel” the children of today are met with as they walk through the local shopping mall. Here is where our job comes in as Protectors of Childhood. I capitalize that because it is such an important task, so underrated, and often, so difficult. It sometimes feels like we have to have armor on to keep our children from all the culture wants to give them at such a tender age. It is good to know that the simplest things, like staying home with no plans, are often what can best serve Childhood, with its innate need for unstructured play time, household tasks, and human relationships. Helping our children remain free from the commercialization of the season will allow them to take in what is truly important during these very special fleeting years of childhood. To participate in the making and sharing of gifts, to sing songs of the season, and most importantly, to wait in happy anticipation for the Holy Child to arrive are the most precious gifts a parent can give.
Advent is a time of waiting and quiet expectation. How nourishing it is for children to watch the adults in their lives slowly build up the beauty and wonder of the season over time, rather than present it ready-made for them. Using the four kingdoms of nature to focus our activity, we can make this often overwhelming time of year not only manageable, but enjoyable and meaningful as well. To create a mood of healthy anticipation, ready an Advent table with a simple shelter for the Heavenly Child’s birth. The Holy Family can begin their journey towards the table, with the children taking turns to move them a bit closer each day during the four weeks of Advent. In the first week, the table is intentionally sparse, with only the stable present. Soon the children begin bringing gifts from the mineral kingdom to it, such as smooth stones and shiny crystals. In the home, the adults remove clutter and, with the children helping as they are able, deep clean down to the “bare bones” of the house. In week two, the children add to the Advent table treasures from the plant kingdom: pinecones, evergreen branches, flowers, and hay for the manger. The Christmas tree is selected, and its unadorned beauty and scent now grace the home. The adults begin to “deck the halls” with greens, a poinsettia, and perhaps some mistletoe! Popcorn and cranberry garlands can be strung to eventually decorate the tree, and later, feed the birds. As week three approaches, the children may bring animal figures to the table, adding found treasures of their own from the animal kingdom, such as feathers or seashells. The adults, with the children’s help, can buy birdseed for the winter months and fill the feeder. Finally the fourth week arrives, and the human figures now join the scene. Shepherds stand guard near their sheep, and the Holy Family arrives on the table to await the birth. With the adults’ help, baking is now in full-swing, as the children measure, mix and excitedly transform nature’s gifts into tasty treats to share with neighbors and friends. The garland and ornaments are now hung on the tree. All wait in joyful anticipation for Christmas morning, when the Child himself will appear as if by magic in the manger.
But first Saint Nicholas must visit, to prepare us for that special arrival! Many children continue the Dutch tradition of polishing their shoes and leaving them on the hearth with a carrot and hay for St. Nicholas’s snow white steed. In return, St. Nick leaves a small note and a gift related to some area that the children need to “polish” in preparation for the Holy Child’s arrival in the home of their hearts. For instance, a new dishtowel encourages clean-up after meals, a brush and file tidies dirty fingernails, or a shiny new hook helps keep pajamas off the floor. At a time when we seem to err on the side of praising and rewarding good behavior, St. Nicholas reminds us that challenging and righting misbehavior is equally important. Of course, the chocolate coins and crunchy nuts that he leaves in their shoes assure the children that he has their best interest at heart!
Likewise, the gifts that Santa brings are opportunities to deepen our children’s play by extending the life and possibilities of their already treasured toys. It is always pure magic on Christmas morning to see that Santa and his helpers can make broken toys whole again, find missing parts to games or puzzles, and repair jewelry pieces. A rocking horse grows a new tail, a well-loved dolly is washed and dressed in new clothes, and sad, worn out, but favorite clothing items receive cheerful new patches. In this way, the adult’s creativity replaces the culture’s cry for consumption and in the process, all find true satisfaction.
As a busy parent, it is at once comforting and liberating to learn that there are not just one, but twelve days of Christmas. The rush of “getting it all done” before December 25th is replaced by a more gentle unfolding of time. Gifts (and cookies!) can continue to be made, wrapped and exchanged. Relatives and neighbors, as well as old and new friends can be visited. There is time for silent strolls, with snow below and stars above.
Not until January 6th are the ornaments carefully removed from the Christmas tree and packed away, while the tree with its popcorn garland is ceremoniously brought out to the yard as a treat and shelter for the birds and squirrels. On that day, the Three Kings’ arrival can be celebrated, as they move onto the Advent table. Whoever finds the treasure baked in the cake is king for the day. One year, my kindergarten children put their heads together and decided that they’d all be kings. They donned capes and crowns and played so harmoniously that day! I helped them along by referring to them as “your Majesties,” and was rewarded by golden behavior. If we but see and support the noble and highest in our children, they will live up to it.
When my oldest daughter was a youngster she asked me how is was that the stars are so much clearer around Christmas time. Children have a way of being in touch and noticing the realities that we adults often miss in our busy-ness. She had begun to discover the truth that the cosmic world draws closer to us during the twelve holy days of Christmas. The people we visit and the ideas we meet during these days may be important or figure prominently in our upcoming year. Some people find that if they go consciously into sleep with a question concerning the future, dreams become vivid, and answers are often discovered in the following days. I have found that artistic work in the evening, such as singing carols, playing instruments, painting, sculpting, or drawing can ease this gateway to the cosmic world. It’s as if by gifting a seed of our inner spirit through our art, we are made ready to accept a seed from the spiritual realm. Journaling upon waking helps to ground that seed in our hearts and heads.
Taking time to contemplate the true gifts of these holi-days is necessary if we are to fully realize them. Children, even more so than adults, need time to internalize all they’ve taken in through their senses, although they don’t consciously know this or ask for it. As adults, we do our children a great service when we allow them the time and space to breathe into this special pause in the year with quiet and reverence. We too gain a gift, for whenever we pause, we free ourselves from habitual thinking and action and create a space. Into this space, a New Possibility can be born in each of us, bringing with it an opportunity to transform our past, creatively meet our present, and dream into our futures.
With wishes for a magical season, Laura Cassidy