Shelving the Elf

“I know what I really want for Christmas.
I want my childhood back.” –Robert Fulghum

. . . . .

“Mom,” Sonny asked the other day, for the third year running. “Why don’t we have an Elf on the Shelf?”

“Oh, we just don’t,” I answered. I’m not opposed to Elf on the Shelf; in fact, it looks like a fun tradition. Whether or not it would serve its purpose as being a Santa spy, we’d all enjoy its creative poses. But the truth is that I don’t need one more thing to remember each evening, especially in December. The Elf would probably forget to relocate and would languish for days in one place and J and I would have to make excuses for his slothfulness. Who needs that? We already have to do that for the Tooth Fairy.

Part of me worries that the want of Elf on the Shelf will develop one of those small, secret resentments that kids harbor into adulthood—the kind that convince them that their childhood was incomplete. But the other part of me seeks comfort in the fact that those of us who grew up before Elf on the Shelf was a Thing turned out just fine (or, if we didn’t, it wasn’t because we didn’t have Elf on the Shelf). I wonder how Elf on the Shelf would have even ranked among my general memories of childhood Christmastimes.

The kitchen smelling of tangerines and wood smoke and cinnamon and butter cookies.

Church Christmas programs: Snaking our way up the narrow, chilly stairwells and into the sanctuary that smelled like old wood and furniture polish, the wave of relief after I’d recited my “line” and now it was Jodi’s or Amy’s turn or Michelle’s turn, the individual boxes of Bridge Mix distributed afterward.

Dividing said Bridge Mix into equal piles, one pile for each day until Christmas, and then eventually breaking down and pilfering the larger pieces (those with caramel and fruit and malted milk filling) from the piles so that by Christmas Eve there remained only one scanty collection of wrinkled little chocolates harboring raisins or peanuts.

Going to my grandparents’ house during our no-TV years to watch Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.

Collaborating with my sisters to make Christmas presents for each other.

Visits from my long-distance grandparents. Grandma brought everyone their own Cool-Whip container full of homemade caramel corn. She and Grandpa would sit quietly, watching the action and smiling at all their offspring.

Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” complete with motions (don’t ask), at my uncle and aunt’s house on Christmas Eve. Then singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with my uncle holding out the phone receiver so my grandparents, if they weren’t visiting that year, could hear us three states away.

My mom waking us up on Christmas morning by playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the piano, and my dad singing along.

Walnut Whirl coffee cake for Christmas breakfast. That stuff is good.

Spending Christmas Day at my local grandparents’ house, the kids’ table rocking with laughter and mashed potatoes and Jello and turkey, and afterward the whole clan packed into what was, now that I think about it, a not very large living room for the afternoon.

The aroma of blue spruce and candles.

My grandparents’ tree adorned with a combination of big old-fashioned Christmas lights (the kind that burned you if you touched them), newer small ones (safe to touch), and a variety of ornaments of all ages—including an elf fashioned from a roll of Life-Savers that was eventually chewed open by an enterprising grandchild. Once, while decorating, my grandma asked my grandpa to put the angel on top of the tree. “Oh Marian,” he said. “I can’t lift you up that high.”

(Okay. Like Robert Fulghum, I kind of want my childhood back now.)

If Elf on the Shelf—or cookie-making, or carol singing, or tree decorating, or visiting Santa—is fun, why not do it, and enjoy? If not, don’t. Or if you forget or don’t have time, no worries. There will be something else—probably something you are not even orchestrating—that you will find yourself enjoying instead. There will be other things that your children will think on fondly someday when they want their childhood back at Christmas.

As Sonny was drawing the picture for this blog post, he suggested again that we get Elf on the Shelf. “We should get one. Why don’t we have one?”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think we really need one right now. We can have Christmas without it.”

And we watched this together, because that’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, all!

 

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Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

Last month I happened upon an article with the approximate title of “Twenty Parenting Hacks That Will Make Your Life Simpler.” Ever seeking a simpler life, I plunged in.

Hack #1: “Wash Legos in a laundry bag in the washing machine.” (Because evidently Legos should be washed once a week. Who gets to decide these things?) My admiration for whomever had come up with this ingenious (although undoubtedly noisy) method to purify Legos was overshadowed by a burning question: How is washing Legos in a laundry bag simpler than not washing Legos, which is what I do now?

I did not finish the article.

December brought an onslaught of other not-simple ideas masquerading as simple. “Thirty Hassle-Free Elf on the Shelf Ideas! Each simple idea takes less than five minutes to set up.” Wouldn’t leaving the Elf on the Shelf on the shelf, per his moniker, be even more hassle-free—if one doesn’t bar him from one’s home entirely, which, let’s face it, is the most hassle-free approach of all? Many families enjoy Elf on the Shelf, but let’s not pretend that having to pose that creature every evening lends simplicity to one’s season.

Nor does twisting napkins into Christmas tree shapes, suggested as a “simple” way to set one’s table. Festive? Yes. Simpler than a folding a napkin into a rectangle? No. Same goes for the six “simple” ways to decorate one’s car for Christmas. Really? Decorate my car? Hanging ornaments from the rear-view mirror is not complicated, but whoever decided that cars should be decorated was not thinking simply.

Still, I have found a few ways to keep the Christmas season a little simpler. Here are a few of my attempts.

(Note: It may seem that one or two of these endeavors are driven more by laziness or incompetence than by a noble quest for simplicity. Let’s just blur those lines, shall we? Potato, potahto . . .)

  • Believed that Sonny was already booked on the morning of the Christmas recital and therefore did not sign him up to participate. Was wrong about him being booked, a discovery that came too late for the sign-up deadline. Not preparing for a recital during an already busy season: simpler than preparing for a recital.
  • Tried a new recipe wherein “Batter may be soft” was a shameless understatement. Poured the batter into a 9×13 pan and offered it to the oven. Renovating would-be cookies into (mediocre) bars: simpler than making a new batch of cookies.
  • Resisted the fleeting urge to rearrange the ornaments after the tree decorating session. Yes, five of the six striped glass bulbs are clumped up together, nearly touching each other, instead of spaced evenly around the branches. Yes, the Nutcracker and the straw angel are both facing the tree trunk. But so what? The kids who decorated this tree are convinced it is “the best tree EVER, and perfect.” Besides, in a few years Sonny and Ace will decorate the tree more conventionally, or they won’t want to help decorate it at all, and I will feel nostalgic. Letting the decorators’ style remain: simpler than trying to refine the tree.
  • Accepted Ace’s offer to wrap presents. The result, many meters of tape later, is a pile of gifts that look like a five-year-old wrapped them. Martha Stewart would recoil and avert her eyes, but the recipients won’t mind. And the five-year-old is proud of having helped. Allowing a volunteer to wrap the presents: easier than doing it oneself (assuming an ample supply of tape).
  • Avoid irritating “Christmas” songs. Yes, music is a matter of taste, so I won’t specify any titles, but some of these songs are plain creepy (cough“BabyIt’sColdOutside”cough). At least one is a carol of self pity that has nothing to do with the Christmas season itself (“Last Christmas,” I’m looking at you.) And have you ever suffered through an hours-long earworm of “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song that is annoying even on its first pass through your head? So if you encounter a woman with her hands over her ears humming loudly to drown out the loudspeaker’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that woman might be me. Listening to meaningful music or just enjoying the silence: simpler (among other things) than suffering through “Santa Baby” and its ilk.
  • Trying to remember that Christmas will preval despite missed recitals, imperfect food, ideal plans (as defined by me) going awry, and too-high expectations of myself and others. It will triumph despite unmet goals and hangry kids . . . and cranky grownups. It will go on despite commercialism. These things are not what Christmas is all about. And I’m so glad.

Post-Valentine’s Day Love

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“When God gave me to you, did he say, ‘Will you love him?’”—Sonny, at age 3

Valentine’s Day, that holiday marked by special gestures such as flowers, candy, cards, dinners out, is over. Valentine’s Day, that holiday unobserved—even scorned—by many (and they have their reasons), will not roll around for another 363 days.

Any day that celebrates love—be it romantic love or love for children, siblings, parents, friends—is worthwhile. Who can argue with love? Who can argue with roses? Who can argue with boxes of chocolate (which are now being clearanced at your nearest pharmacy, so don’t just sit there!). But Valentine’s Day gestures doesn’t compare to showing love the rest of the year in ways unscripted by Hallmark.

For example: We love our children. We love them when they’re loveable and when they’re unloveable. When they’re drawing us pictures, when they’re snuggling to read a book, when they’re doing their chores, when they’re helping their brother, when they’re playing superheroes, when they’re singing in the bathtub. When they’re trashing the house, when they’re refusing to do their chores, when they’re tormenting their brother, when they’re enthusiastically bailing bathwater onto the floor.

But sometimes, I suspect, despite our best efforts, they might not always feel very loved. Maybe we sometimes forget to show love (or are too irritated to do so; see bathwater example), or we show it in ways that they don’t feel.

So, I asked Sonny and Ace and some of their contemporaries (via their parents) what makes them feel loved. Here is what they said:

When you lie down and rest with me.

Going out for lunch with just Daddy.

Getting hugs and kisses.

When you tell me you love me.

When you listen to me.

When you ask me what I think.

When you build things with me.

Snuggling.

Playing Candyland with me.

Notes in my lunchbox.

Laughing together.

Walking the dog with me so I don’t have to go alone.

Getting mail from Grandpa and Grandma.

When you notice I did a good job.

When people say thank you.

Much as they love Disneyland and electronics and staying up late and toys (and lots of them), none of these kids associated those things with feeling loved. They just want a little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace. Then they will feel loved.

After all, Captain von Trapp loved his children, but they didn’t figure that out until he sang with them.

Adults are no different. Spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors—what makes them feel loved? A little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace.

What does this look like? Depending on the recipient, maybe a phone call. Maybe a chore taken off their hands. Being listened to. A note. A visit. A sincere compliment. A favorite meal. Permission to be themselves. Praise or appreciation instead of criticism. A walk together. Going out for coffee. A hug.

See? You don’t even have to buy any roses or any chocolates (clearanced or otherwise).

So Happy Non-Valentine’s Days, all 363 of them. Don’t forget to celebrate.