Teaching Christmas

How do you explain the wonder and awe of Christmas to a toddler? Perhaps just with lights this year, a young mother writes.

By Guest Blogger Molly Jo Rose

Christmas lights drape the window frame and entice my 16-month-old son with their colorful glow. He plops down where he can just reach a grouping of them and he tugs at the strand playfully, rolling the individual bulbs between his fingers like rosary beads. 

“Don’t pull,” I chide him. “Just touch.” His eyes dart toward me, then back to the lights. Soft jewels of blue, red, and green light dapple his face. I am slightly concerned the lights may tumble down on him or that he might follow the lights to the outlet with too much curiosity, but my real concern is how to begin to explain Christmas to him.

I hardly understand the whole Christ child thing myself. God incarnated as man is pretty heavy. How am I supposed to introduce such a complicated idea to a child who is still learning how to make words?

I consider this awesome task while my son tries to eat one of the bulbs. “No, no. Not in your mouth,” I say, but the words fail me just like they still fail him. I pull the string out of his mouth and encourage him once again to just admire the lights without eating them. “So pretty. Be nice. Be gentle.” The sentences are always short, the words chosen from a small vocabulary I hope means something to him.

So far, this is what he knows about Jesus: If he plays too aggressively with the crucifix hanging over his crib and it drops to the ground, he has to kiss it before we hang it back up. “Be nice to Jesus,” I tell him and then we both kiss the crucifix and dangle it once again from a peg over his bed. I could hang it higher, but I want him to be able to reach it. I don’t know how else to start this conversation.

It’s Christmastime and my son is almost old enough for me to start thinking about how I am going to move the conversation about Jesus from the man on the crucifix to the little baby in the manger. I know this isn’t the right chronology, but I have to work with it.

I pull my son into my lap in front of the Nativity hoping to replace his compulsion to eat lights with playing with the Baby Jesus. “This is Baby Jesus,” I tell him, pulling the small figurine from the manger and setting it soft in my son’s hand. “He loves us. It’s his birthday soon.”

I feel awkward talking this way to him. He doesn’t handle abstractions well at all. He’s more of a here-and-now kind of guy. The camel with its long legs is much more interesting. He grabs for it and casts Baby Jesus aside. I try again.

“Look at this sweet baby, Goose,” calling my son by his nickname. “This baby loves us. Don’t you love this baby?”

Goose doesn’t care much and instead bites down on the camel leg. I try again, pressing Baby Jesus in my son’s hand a second time. “Look how little this baby is. Should we celebrate his birthday soon and buy each other presents because we love each other so much?”

Goose looks up at me and smiles before scrambling off to the lights again, tossing both the camel and Baby Jesus to the floor. I pick them up and replace them in the Nativity scene and decide that for now at least, I’ll have to settle with the lights being all the magic of Christmas. Maybe that’s all the wonder a 16-month-old can handle.

Guest blogger Molly Jo Rose blogs at Mapmaker of the Human Condition.