Anyone who grew up watching Little House on the Prairie remembers the show where the Ingalls children find a tin cup, a peppermint stick and a shiny penny under the tree in the cold log cabin in Minnesota. In flapping night dresses and sleep bonnets they dance merrily around the fire as Pa plays his fiddle. Laura and Mary don’t necessarily love the plain tin cups, but they feel special knowing the cups mean they don’t have to share anymore. The intrinsic value goes far beyond the cost of the tin.
Things have not changed all that much from those pioneer days.
No one is taking the wagon to town for midnight shopping, but every mother is keenly aware of the traditions that make the holiday special for children. We will work creatively, perhaps starting before the snow flies, to find the best deals and coordinate with Grandmas and relatives to get the gift under the tree that makes her child’s eyes sparkle. We give to let them know their wants are valid even if our child’s wants seem so trivial compared to an adult’s needs.
Most parents put every effort into making holiday wishes come true — if only for one morning — because we know that in the grand scheme of life, putting a special request under the tree is a lot easier than doing almost anything else for our children.
We cannot always protect them from illness and disease.
We cannot take away debilitating psychological or genetic challenges.
We cannot make other children accept them as they are, or fabricate a life-long friendship where there is none.
We cannot buy our way out of medical debt, sometimes we cannot pay the mortgage, and sometimes we have to move in with Uncle Ed.
We cannot hand over our confidence to our teenage daughters or grant passing grades to our hard working students.
We cannot guarantee safe passage through dangerous streets, protect them from hateful words that they will hear or keep them safe from unpredictable circumstances.
But at the end of each year, parents listen closely to a child’s material requests and commit to memory each list of wishes written in crooked but hopeful handwriting. We are grateful for all the good things and hope that our efforts strike a bargain to keep things as good as they are, keenly aware that even if circumstances are bad, they can always be worse.
We creatively work to give our children good holiday memories, sometimes calling in favors, maybe working an extra job, trading our time for someone else’s talents, blatantly robbing Peter to pay Paul and making New Year’s resolutions all about balancing the checkbook and learning to simplify.
For now, we will live in the moment and try to buy some time for our children so they can remain innocent and unaware of the grown up stuff, all the unforeseen challenges that they will have to deal with all too soon. Moms and Dads shelter them for a little while longer, taking seriously the job of protecting the wonder of the season, this granting of tangible wishes, this material miracle-making, hoping to never be asked to put in a pretty box the things parents cannot procure in a midnight run to Walmart.