The Greatest Christmas Gift for Children
Fr. Shay Cullen
Christmas is the celebration of the wonder and great value we have in children. We celebrate their rights and dignity. Every family ought to protect and care for their children, not to pamper and spoil them as objects and even victims of crass commercialization and exaggerated gift-giving. No gift can ever buy the love of a child. No gift is more valuable than the genuine love and appreciation of parents for their children.
Great gifts that are much better than toys that will be thrown aside in time is to give to children gifts that will last a lifetime. They are the gifts of knowledge, truth, honesty, integrity and straight talk. They are priceless and spiritual. As they grow older, children will develop an awareness of the world and society around them and realize the gap between them and the poor. They will need the roots of social inequality to be explained to them one day as soon as they are intelligent enough to understand.
Children understand greed and selfishness from an early age in the kindergarten play room where children interact and some covet the toys of others and can be aggressive to get them. That is where they learn how the more aggressive can dominate and exploit the non-aggressive.
With the positive example of caring parents with social concern and action for the downtrodden, children will develop social awareness and deep, intelligent understanding and compassion at an early age. This will blossom into that greatest love of all: love of the poor children who do not have the benefits that they have. They will quickly learn to share with and help others in need once given the good example and the opportunity and encouragement to help and share with them. The greatest gift of all is perhaps the good example of parents who have concern that turns to action to help the poor children of this unjust and unequal world. Children will learn from their parents, the good and the bad.
What can children learn from the Christmas nativity story? There are some beautiful, traditional customs of Christmas that remind us of our childhood. The Christmas “Belen” or manger scene depicts the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by the adoring parents Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and animals. However, the meaning and significance of that image of the most revered person in history being born into the world is not explained or widely understood. It has no message about who Jesus was and what his mission would be to the world. Sadly, it is a sanitized version of a harsh, unwelcome truth. It does not depict the reality of what historically happened or what the Gospel story is telling us.
The reality of the birth, if historically true, is that it was a painful dangerous birth of a child of impoverished parents that could not get a place in the Bethlehem Inn. There was no experienced mid-wife, clean cloths, hot water, light in the darkness or sanitary surroundings. Infection was likely in the dirty stable surrounded by animal dung, the air filled with the stench. It was the painful dangerous birth that about 1.1 billion impoverished children endure in the world today. A million newborn babies die annually on the day they are born. More than 11,000 newborns die on their first day in the USA, the highest of 68 countries.
One message is clear from the Gospel- that this specially gifted person, who would describe himself as the Son of Man, was and is a representative of all impoverished humanity. He speaks for all men, women and children who are hungry, deprived of a decent life and suffered torture and an unjust death. But not only was it a day fraught with danger from the weakness of his mother, the lack of clean surroundings, the effects of crude hardship and poverty but there was more- the death squads and murderous military, sent out by a manic ruler searching to kill all who opposed and criticized him, even impoverished children. They were, he believed, a threat to his power. (Matthew 2: 16)
The death squads and military slaughtered every newborn child up to the age of two years old in the district of Bethlehem. Thousands were slaughtered. If he had been found, Jesus of Nazareth would have been among them. Cruel and evil humans would have once again altered the destiny of the world and deprived humanity of infinite goodness and love personified. The parents of Jesus like millions of refugees and migrants fleeing hunger and poverty and death threats today fled into Egypt. There, they found a welcome and what a lesson it is for the world today.
It is a story by which parents can explain to the children the truth and realities of the world we live in. Yet the people of the rich world have closed their hearts and doors to them as they continue to flee Syria, Iraq, and Africa. If we see Christmas as a challenge for us to embrace the words and example of Jesus of Nazareth and teach it to our children, what a different world it would be. What a lasting Christmas gift for life if that spirit of giving and sharing and working for a more just, loving world came to be in the minds and hearts of our children? It would be heaven on earth as Jesus also intended.