Monday, December 14, 2009

Back to Bethlehem Y'all!

When I was seventeen years old, my Spanish teacher made a comment that has always stuck with me. "Trust me," he said, "the first twenty years of your life goes by very slow, but the rest of it will fly by faster than you can believe." Well, I'd have to say that my teacher was right. Now in my forties, I'm finding that the years zoom by. Case in point, it's already Christmas 2009. It seems like just last week I was taking down our artificial Christmas tree from last year and watching Oklahoma lose yet another January bowl game. But make no mistake, the yule tide sounds of Christmas carols, beeping cash registers, Black Friday moms sucker punching one another over half-priced Wii systems, and grandparent-induced guilt trips designed to ensure that we visit them on Christmas remind us all that, indeed, the festive Holiday Season has arrived.

I've always loved Christmas. As a kid, of course, you look forward to seeing what Santa Claus will leave under the tree Christmas morning. I can remember when I was a little boy and still believed that Kris Kringle delivered all the toys in person, without any help from Mom or Dad. My siblings and I normally had to lie in bed waiting until my mother came to get us and tell us it was time to go down the hall to see what toys Santa had left. Of course, if you hadn't been good that year, Santa would supposedly leave a lump of coal or a bag of "switches" in your stocking. (For you northern transplants, a "switch" was a southern word parents used to describe a stick with which they would beat their disobedient children. They didn't have to feel guilty or worry about being arrested because... well... it was a switch, not a regular stick.)

I remember only one year in which I really sweated it out, unsure if I'd find toys or a switch when I arrived at the Christmas tree. I was in the second grade. That's the year I discovered curse words. It's also the year I learned to cheat on homework. My buddy Ralph Canello and I would drop a few d-words and f-bombs over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the cafeteria, then return to Mrs. Stephenson's class early to copy Kim Wilson's math answers. We didn't think about the consequences. We were living life in the fast lane at John J. Blair elementary school. Then, December rolled around. Right about Thanksgiving I cut out the cursing and started doing my own homework (at least until January). I then waited nervously for Christmas morning. To both my surprise and relief, Santa hooked me up that year. I never worried too much about that naughty-nice list again. I figured Santa was either slipping and not that on top of things, or he was a lot more lenient than I'd been led to believe. Either way, I couldn't wait for school to start again so I could tell Ralph about all the f-bombin' toys Santa had brought me for Christmas.

Now I'm the dad. In addition to hopefully using less profanity, I also see it as my role to make Christmas special and memorable for my kids the way my parents made it special and memorable for me. That means consciously pulling myself away from work and the craziness of Christmas preparations to spend special times with my family. Christmas, after all, is about traditions. More than any specific toy or present that they'll receive, my children will look back one day and appreciate the things we did together every Christmas.

Take, for instance, last Friday night. Meredith and I loaded up our minivan with our kids and three of their friends from next door. Fortunately, the little girls next door are awesome and always a pleasure to have over. We didn't mind taking them because their parents have done such a great job of teaching them manners and respect. Still, six kids against two semi-sane adults is a challenging ratio. Nothing says "Jolly Christmas spirit" quite like trying to shove multiple booster seats and one toddler's car seat into a cramped minivan. After nearly dislocating my fingers and verbally accusing the seat belts of having a canine heritage, I finally--somehow--got all the seats in. Then, the joyous process of loading little people into just the right spot so that we all had room began. My wife and I looked like U.S. soldiers trying to pack fleeing refugees onto a helicopter during the Saigon Airlift. It was like a living version of that game psychologists make you play--the one where you have to see how quickly you can place different shapes into the right holes. Meredith would hand me a child, then I'd try in vain to fit him or her into a given spot. Eventually, after enough tears and screams of "Something's pinching my fanny!" I'd concede defeat, hand the child back, and tell Meredith to give me another kid. Finally, with all the refugees squared away and bundled up like midget adventurers on a Himalayan expedition, we headed north to Canton to visit Hopewell Baptist Church's "Back to Bethlehem."

I have to give kudos to Hopewell, the experience was really cool. Each Christmas they re-create ancient Bethlehem. Church members dress up as residents of the city or Roman guards, then do their best to make visitors feel like they're in Bethlehem the night of the Savior's birth. It's a lot of fun and very educational. I never realized "y'all" is a Hebrew word, but it obviously must be because all night long I heard phrases like "Shalom y'all" and "How far'd y'all come for the census?" Meanwhile, my kids had a blast. They learned about the synagogue, watched Roman soldiers parole the streets, and got to pet goats and see a live camel. Best of all, the experience got the kids thinking about Jesus. It was heart-warming hearing William ask when he could see baby Jesus, only to have his six-year-old sister, Emerson, explain to him that Jesus had actually been born a long time ago and that he had died on the cross and was already back in heaven. William thought about it for a minute and responded with the only words I guess a four-year-old could: "Then where's Santa?"

Aah yes, Christmas is busy. There are gifts to buy, plans to make, and work to rush to finish before taking a few days off for the Holidays. But most of all, there are traditions to be built and memories to make with your family. So I'll look forward to these next couple of weeks and do my best to savor them. Merry Christmas fellow dads. I hope you look back one day and realize that you took every advantage of making this one of the most fun and memorable Christmases your kids will ever know.

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