A couple days ago, my boys earned a lump of coal for Christmas. While they sprinted to start their iPad time, their quick mama noticed that the requisite piano practicing seemed shorter than it was supposed to be. Turns out, it was. Deliberately. They set timers for their piano playing, and my little deceiver set his timer short on purpose. I was not happy. Nor am I as quick as I thought because apparently they had done this repeatedly in the past. I really do not like being lied to, especially by my children. Their precious, beloved, almost sacred iPad time got significantly shortened. Two can play the shortened timer game! Plus they had to think about what they did with a writing exercise.
I think they are pretty good kids even with these sneaky transgressions. It would take a lot more than cheating on their piano time for them to actually get coal and no gifts. A LOT. Supposedly, Santa brings presents for the nice and coal for the naughty. Well, that’s not necessarily the case for our Santa. Our Santa always seems to bring them presents even when they pull stunts like this.
I love the magic of Christmas but am also aware of the unfairness of Santa on a larger scale. Kids with big hearts but little resources can get worse than coal, while kids with rotten attitudes may still get the best gifts money can buy (before they end up tripping basketball players for Duke). But parents tell this seasonal bribe for the hopes of better behavior (and who doesn’t need a little help with this!?), but also because there is something about the sentiment that rings true for us. Good behavior deserves rewards. Bad behavior deserves the opposite. We can extend behaviors to the entirety of a person. Good people deserve rewards. Bad people deserve the opposite. It sounds right, and in essence, it is. It just doesn’t always get played out rightly like it should in this imperfect world.
Last week, the boys and I spent an evening writing holiday cards to people incarcerated in our state. Connor didn’t seem to understand why we needed to do this. He said, “But they’re prisoners so….” and his tone suggested an ending such as they did something wrong, they deserve to be in there, and so why should we write to them. He and his brother are too young to read The New Jim Crow or Just Mercy. I doubt I could get them to watch 13th on Netflix instead of Star Wars Rebels. I want them to know why we do what we do, so I attempted an explanation.
Me: “Have you ever done anything wrong before or made any mistakes?”
Ethan: “DUH! Of course.”
Me: “Imagine that I sent you to your room. Then I made you stay there forever so that you had to miss Christmas, opening presents under the tree, and being with your family. How would you feel?
Me: “Sometimes the system that is set up to be right doesn’t always get played out rightly by people who also can make mistakes. This can be true especially for people who are poor or face prejudice. Remember how you’d feel if I sent you to your room forever so that you missed Christmas, and try to write things that would cheer them up if you were them.”
I cannot say for sure, but I think that Connor’s subsequent silence held the formation of a new way of thinking. If his thinking was challenged and he began to see the humanity in someone he previously thought as less than himself, then it was well worth the time spreading Christmas cheer to someone behind bars. Maybe he will grow up to see this in all people. To see himself in someone no matter how different (or undeserving) they may seem on the surface. Or even better, to put that empathic connection into action.
I hope this season we all can try to see this common humanity in others, even those that we have a hard time putting in any other category than “UGH!!!!” (For me, that can be bigly hard.) When we promote the spirit of Christmas, it isn’t simply to correct wrongly played out truths, like helping Santa be what we say he is without real-world constraints. It is far better than the spirit of Santa. The spirit of Christmas is the world in its entirety truly deserving coal but being given the best gift that unconditional Love can buy. It showers upon us this abundance and the only proper way to respond is with thanksgiving and active imitation. To shower others with mercy and grace wrapped in Love whether we feel they deserve it or not. For all of us who has ever earned a lump of coal, God bless us, EVERY one. Merry Christmas!