Many Christian parents spend Advent agonizing over how to preserve the true spiritual meaning of Christmas. They want to give their kids a happy day without turning them into materialistic little monsters, but it's not always easy to strike that balance.  In a recent conversation online, Jaclyn Ruli put her finger on one of the wrong ways to do it. Noticing a disturbing theme in many Christmas videos designed for kids, she said:

Why are Christian videos for children condescending? "Christmas isn't about gifts, it's about Jesus!" There's almost a chastising tone in so many of these shows. They start out with a scene by a Christmas tree, passively showing how this scene is flawed, and then they say, "Let me show you the real meaning . . ." Which leads into a biblical narrative. (Which is perfect). But then right after the narrative, they jump into wagging a finger: "  . . . So don't forget this while you open your gifts!"

Doesn't that sound familiar? Of all the methods of evangelization, preemptive shaming is probably the least effective (and projecting your own flaws on other people is especially repulsive). Christmas is not all about presents and toys and candy, but it's also not all about nagging and guilt! So why is the finger-wagging approach to Christmas so common?

I think it has more to do with parental guilt mixed with leftover Puritan anxiety than with any real flaw in the kids. Obviously, materialism is a vice to be avoided. We've all met (and maybe accidentally helped to create) kids who truly are greedy and whiny and obsessed with getting more and more and more stuff. But it's perfectly natural, and not unhealthy at all, to associate gifts with happiness.

As Ruli points out, "The child is closer to the Lord than we are. Jesus says, "unless you become like this child"! What is it that the child already offers?"

One thing a kid understands, perhaps better than an adult, is that if you love somebody, you show it. To kids, this often means literally handing something to someone they love (which is why parents receive so many generous gifts of dead leaves, bits of yarn, and half-eaten fig newtons). Kids get that loving equals doing. Sounds obvious, right? But as an adult, I often want to skate by with simply professing love. and then resting on my laurels. It's cheap and easy to say "I love you!" to God, to my husband, to my kids. But actually following through and doing something loving? I get around to that a lot less often. 

So, no, we don't want to convey to our kids that love can be bought on Amazon; but we also shouldn't try to persuade them that love is some kind of nebulous, moonshiny, spiritual quality that has very little to do with their everyday experiences. Rather than turning Christmas into a story about God vs. Happiness, the trick is to turn love and giving into part of one seamless idea.

Don't worry, I'm not going to full Theology of the Body on you here. But Catholics should never be afraid of the idea that love and generosity make us happy, and that God is somehow the enemy of simple, tangible joys. What I tell my kids is this:

Christmas is Jesus' birthday, which is a happy day for the whole world. When we're happy, we like to do nice things for each other. So we give each other presents, hooray! It's so much fun to pick out presents for each other, and it's so much fun to get neat stuff from people who love you! Now, Baby Jesus is God, so does He want a Batman action figure or a My Little Pony? No, probably not. But He does get really happy when we're good to each other. So when we love somebody, we give them presents to celebrate happy days, and when we love God, we do good things for each other, and that makes God happy.

No finger wagging there. And when Christmas day comes and I haven't spent Advent trying to shame my kids into not enjoying the presents I'm buying them, they're much more likely to share their candy with me. It's a win-win approach, and oh, so Catholic.