(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
A well known contemporary writer, Larry Wilde, once said, “Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.” And Erma Bombeck, a well-known humorist in her own right, once said, “There is nothing sadder in this world than to awake on Christmas morning and not be a child.”
Christmas and Hanukah, of all the year’s days, are ones most anticipated by children – and perhaps most dreaded by adults! But as we have considered a very Dickens holiday over the past two Sundays, I hope this evening we will consider Dickens belief that the two holidays are best seen through the eyes of youth – and how they are often much wiser than adults.
As we all agree, Christmas and Hanukah ought to be simple occasions when relationships, family, and service to others are valued more than gifts and lavish parties. This is a season when we want to find meaning by remembering and practicing our values.
Charles Dickens understood that. In most of his novels, it is the adults who need to transform their thinking. It’s the children in his stories who suffer the most, but who still retain the kind of wisdom, love and wonder that gives our world hope.
Such Dickens ideals echo those of Jesus who implored adults to let kids be true to their good instincts. “Don’t hold them back,” he said. “The realm of goodness belongs to children!” That timeless truth tells us that the attitudes of children are ones to copy. Indeed, I believe the holidays are best celebrated in the company of young people – or in the company of adults who act and think like children. The spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah are found when we reclaim our inner child.
I remember the second Christmas of my daughter Sara – 30 years ago! The must-have gift for kids that year was an animated wonder toy called Teddy Ruxpin. This stuffed bear talked, sang, moved its mouth and blinked its eyes – all in some fantastic and never before seen way. Sara’s mother and I thought that she was old enough for it. So, expensive as it was for a young family, we bought it and made it Sara’s featured gift.
After we helped her unwrap and open the box, and after I figured out how to insert the batteries and turn it on, Sara stared at that 1980’s technological marvel. It perplexed her for a minute but, instead of then delighting in it, she quickly turned her attention to the brightly colored wrapping paper and a large red bow we had torn off the box. She playfully tossed the paper around, wrapped it around her head, twirled the ribbon, crawled inside the large box and completely ignored the singing bear.
Those simple things delighted her far more than the expensive toy. Pulling the box over her head and playing peek-a-boo was much more fun. Money, technology and costly things had not yet corrupted her – as they do almost everyone when they reach a certain age. Whenever that happens, we lose something beautiful and pure – we lose the child in us that can make the holidays so delightful.
Along with memories of my daughter Sara on Christmas are ones I have of my maternal grandfather. When I was young, I recall Christmases with him when, after a few glasses of holiday spirits, he became very, very silly. He decorated his bald head with multiple bows, put on ugly clothing other people had received for Christmas, dangled tree ornaments from his ears, danced around the room and mugged for me and my siblings. We thought he was crazy but absolutely hilarious. My grandmother, who was much more serious, frowned at his antics, but that caused him to be even more silly. He stuck his tongue out at her and continued on. At Christmas, this older man became a child again – and he made the day alive and full of laughter.
Charles Dickens does much the same with some of the characters in his novels. We easily remember the kids in his books – the innocent David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, the conniving and prank loving Artful Dodger, or the pure Tiny Tim who thinks more about the happiness of others. Dickens identified with children who suffered because of his own traumatic experiences as a child. He championed their interests and he was strategic in using them to prick the consciences of his readers.
Victorian England, perhaps like contemporary America, distrusted the poor and questioned their work ethic and morality. Prevailing thinking believed that people are personally at fault for being poor or in debt. While Dickens knew such thinking is false, he also knew that nobody can question the work ethic or motivations of children. They are innocents who have nothing to do with their suffering. So he featured children as some of his most memorable characters – those who are poor and suffer but who offer profound wisdom.
It is Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol who captures our hearts and sympathies. Despite his infirmity, he exclaims in the novel that he hopes people at church will notice his physical challenges, especially at Christmas. It will remind them, he says, of the one whose holiday we celebrate – the man who advocated for the blind, the challenged and the lame.
Later, it’s Tim who prays for Scrooge and it’s Tim who is given the most repeated line from the novel – “God bless us everyone!” Tim does not feel the shame of his condition. Like most kids, he sees himself and others with innocence. Everyone is equal in his eyes. He feels blessed – not cursed. As Tiny Tim says, “It is good to be a child sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, whose mighty founder was a child himself!”
We do young people no favor, however, by over-idealizing them and making them more angelic than they are. I know. I survived raising two teenage girls and I well remember what I would often tell them when they were acting every bit a hormonal teenager – “I will always love you, but right now I don’t like you very much!”
But the attitudes of youth, their innocent ways, their idealism, energy and hope for the future are qualities that enable their wide eyed wonder and a belief that the world can be made much, much better. As we think about it, it was the youth of the 1960’s who ended a war, brought down a deceitful President and who now, as part of the millennial generation, have championed marriage equality, justice for African-Americans and a deep concern for the earth and our environment. Children and youth are also naturally less inhibited about loving, playing and laughing with anyone. They have no adult filters that can judge others based on looks, gender, income, race or whom they love. At some point in life, however, we learn too much, we become a bit too cynical and much too serious. We lose the wisdom we once had as a kid – a sense of trust and a happy-go-lucky joy.
It was Jesus who said that faith like a child is what will heal the world. After a troubling past year, and perhaps troubling years ahead, we need to remember his words. Most children are color blind. Many have little use for money or expensive things. The world, for them, is like a playground on which everyone ought to treat each other as friends. Faith like a child is an attitude that trusts in the implicit goodness of others, that is deeply sad when others hurt, that is humble and simple. It is the kind of pure faith that I remember in my very young daughters when they would toddle along beside me and reach up their little hands to hold mine and follow me anywhere. Their sweet trust was so complete in their daddy.
That innocence in children can be dangerous, but as adults we can emphasize danger and demean youthful naiveté too much. Real spirituality involves just the kind of trust and unconditional love that children possess. We should never try to suppress that in them. Children have no sense of self-importance and simply enjoy the beauty, fun and play found in every person.
Charles Dickens believed this. How can we not see, he implicitly asks in his novels, in the face of any child – black, brown, dirty, crying, poor or sick – great wisdom that adults should heed?
I love this place when kids and teens are running around, playing and laughing – the more hectic, the better! For me, the greatest value we have here – one that we state each week in our unison affirmation – is that we are committed to the future of children – ours and all others. Such a future is one where the idea of one human family might come to pass because of the idealism of our youth. It’s they whom I trust will promote a world where differences in race, religion, nationality or status are no more. Where hate, bigotry and violence cease to exist. Adults might say that is a utopian dream which will never happen. But if we remember the wisdom of children, that anything is possible for those who see every Christmas tree as thirty feet tall, who trust and like everyone………..then such a future might happen.
When we go home tonight, when we awake in the morning – let’s resolve to let our inner child out. Let’s see the world in new and fresh ways. Let’s be playful, joyous, trusting and full of hope. Let’s see in every face we encounter, as Dickens did, the image of the divine – someone to be loved and treated with dignity. Let’s grab the tinsel, wrapping paper, boxes, ribbons and holiday spirits – and throw a party! Let’s abandon our serious selves and reach out to family, friends and all others with a trusting hand – “Here I am,” we might say, “It’s a holiday and I want to play!”
And I wish you all a peaceful Hanukah and a joyful Christmas!