Gilding the Christmas Lily

Guest writer Randy Southern returns, but no tear jerker this time, just a great story of Christmas.

"Do you think Santa Claus will bring me a Sweet Magic Kitchen if I write him a letter?"

My ears pricked up. It was the first time my four-year-old daughter had asked for something specific for Christmas. She'd seen commercials for the play kitchen that turned foods different colors and played music while it cooked. And she wanted it--more than she'd wanted anything in her young life.

Unfortunately, she'd become aware of the Sweet Magic Kitchen a little late in the season. It was sold out throughout the greater Chicagoland area. Had been for weeks. The best we could do was put our name on store waiting lists and hope. But by the time December 23rd rolled around, we knew it was likely a lost cause.

On Christmas morning, Amy opened her presents with her usual excitement. But her eyes kept wandering, looking for that one special gift. After all the packages under the tree had been opened, she mustered a smile. "I guess Santa didn't get my letter in time," she said. "Maybe he'll bring me a Sweet Magic Kitchen next year."

I gave her a comforting hug, then glanced behind her. "Hey, what's that in the dining room?" I asked. "I know that wasn't there when I went to bed last night."

Amy turned and spotted the object, which was covered by a large bedsheet. Her eyes went wide. She ran to the dining room, peeked under the sheet and let out a squeal that I can still hear eight years later.

"He got my letter! He got my letter!"

Actually we'd gotten a phone call. On the night of the 23rd, a Toys 'R' Us store in Bloomingdale had found a mislabeled Sweet Magic Kitchen in its storeroom. Yes, Virginia, there is an inventory control manager.

That's how, on December 25, 2002, I was able to re-enact the end of A Christmas Story in my own home--with a pink and white plastic musical oven-and-refrigerator set playing the role of the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

It was an unforgettable morning. The only person more excited than Amy was me. I discovered that eliciting a squeal (or a gasp or a look of stunned amazement) from a well-chosen present is extremely rewarding ... and more than a little intoxicating. Truth is, I've been chasing that high ever since.

It's a hereditary affliction. My father grew up in a family of eight kids, so his memories of Christmas morning are of a tree surrounded by an ocean of presents. When he had a family of his own, that's the tableau he set out to recreate each year--even though he only had three kids. Needless to say, Christmas was magical in the Southern household.

(I should point out here that I'm not talking about conspicuous consumption. There was no Hammacher Schlemmer nonsense going on under our tree. Ours was a working-class family. Mom and Dad never broke the bank creating Christmas magic for us. Yet they always made it magical.)

I want that same magic for my kids. My preferred style has been the pulling-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat approach, finding the present that everyone says can't be found--the one that seems almost too good to hope for--and making sure it's under the tree Christmas morning.

In addition to the Sweet Magic Kitchen, I've pulled rare Pokemon cards, hard-to-find Star Wars figures, retired Webkinz animals and out-of-stock video games from my Christmas hat. Did it require considerable effort on my part? Sometimes. Have I ever gone overboard in my pursuit of those items? None of your business. After all, I was trying to make Christmas magic for my kids.

My payoff came a couple weeks ago while we were putting up our Christmas decorations. My son Brady, caught up in the excitement and nostalgia of the moment, asked, "You wanna know what my favorite Christmas gift of all time is?"

I smiled in anticipation. If he said what I thought he was going to say, I had a great story for him about how I got my hands on such a hard-to-find gift. I was ready to give him a glimpse behind the curtain, to show him how I pull off my Christmas magic.

"The pajamas Aunt June gives us on Christmas Eve," he said.

[Cue the sound of a phonograph needle scratching across a record.]

His sister and brother chimed in immediately and enthusiastically: "Oh, yeah!" "I love those pajamas!" "They're always so warm!" "I can't wait 'til we get new ones this year!"

Brady looked at me and suddenly realized what he'd said--or hadn't said. Maybe it was the rictus grin frozen on my face that clued him in--or my stranglehold grip on the stuffed Frosty I was holding. He started backpedaling so fast I expected to hear a squealing sound coming from his mouth.

"Dad, I didn't mean I like them better than your presents.... I love your presents, too.... I know you work really hard to get them for us.... Actually, I'd say it's a tie." The kid knew how to do damage control.

I sensed a learning opportunity heading my way and let him off the hook. "Why do you like the pajamas so much?" I asked.

"It's something that happens every year," he explained. "We know that every Christmas Eve, Aunt June's going to give us pajamas. And I like that."

Tradition. He didn't use the word, but that's what he meant. Pokemon cards and video games come and go. But getting pajamas on Christmas Eve is a tradition, a memory stirrer, an annual connection to Christmases past.

I understand. Our kids are growing up in a society where constant change is the norm, where new technology renders the old obsolete in an instant, where TV shows are canceled after an episode or two, where the cultural landscape shifts with every new Twitter post and Facebook status update. They're constantly being challenged to grow up, become more worldly wise, assume more responsibility and act more maturely.

In contrast, Christmas traditions offer something lasting to hold on to, something unchanging, something safe and predictable, something perpetually innocent and childlike. What's not to love and embrace? 

I should have seen it coming with my kids. The clues were there for me to figure out.  They usually have to be prodded to make their Christmas lists. But they can entertain themselves for hours talking about ...

driving to Galena on the day after Thanksgiving to cut down our Christmas tree

making marzipan with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins

leaving reindeer food in the yard on Christmas Eve

listening to the same two Christmas mix CDs on the way to Grandma's house on Christmas morning

taking turns reading aloud Luke 2:1-20 with Dad on Christmas Day.

It's not that they don't appreciate my well-chosen gifts. They just don't place much emphasis on them. As far as they're concerned, Christmas presents are party favors, souvenirs of the season. Traditions are where the memorable fun is found.

I realize there's a dangerously high "Duh" factor in this article. You'd think I would have learned something from all those feel-good Christmas specials I grew up watching. Any Who down in Whoville could have told me that Christmas magic isn't found in presents--even Cindy Lou Who, who's no more than two.

But that's not my point. The point is, I was trying to make Christmas magical for my kids. But that's ridiculous. It's like trying to make my wife beautiful or make reality TV brain-deadening. My wife is beautiful. Reality TV is brain-deadening. And Christmas is magical, with or without my help.

Anything I do to "make" it magical is just gilding the lily. Sure, it's tempting to try to capture Christmas lightning in a bottle again. The payoff of finding the perfect present is too sweet to ignore. But that's not where my energies need to be directed.

We're allotted only so many Christmases with our kids. We have a finite number of opportunities to make yuletide memories with them. So this year I'm embracing tradition like never before. I'm chasing permanent pleasures my family will remember for years instead of temporary thrills that won't last much longer than our Christmas tree.

This is the year I kick my addiction to wowing my kids with jaw-dropping gifts. This is the year I end my quest for the perfect present.

Unless you have a line on an inexpensive violin I can surprise Amy with on Christmas morning. Because that would just kill.

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