Tuesday, December 13, 2016

to elf or not to elf? that is the question.

the elf thing.
for me, it might be the most conflicting element of the christmas season.

to have elves or not to have elves? … that is the question.

really jody? are you seriously spending even an ounce of energy asking that question?

but alas, i am. i’m a woman with kids and we do life in the south and—though i’m not entirely sure about other parts of the country—where we live, school age kids everywhere have elves.

truth is, i’ve never been exactly sure how i feel about this cultural norm.

even after moving to georgia with our first two kiddos, i was able to keep it all at bay for awhile. when emily and tyler were little i could monitor everything about them: what they ate, what they watched, who they played with … and, yes, even the elf thing. they never did get swept up in it. i had control. but by the time children numbers 3 and 4 came along, like in most every other area, the control began to crumble and crack and the christmas elves were inevitably introduced (as was the disney channel, sugar cereal and the occasional lunchable). and i’ll admit, there were some pretty cute things about having elves. but still, i always had this nagging thought, this itch deep inside, wondering if i should be expending any of my precious mama energy on precocious elves.

and then bella arrived on the scene and how could we not do elves with her? her first christmas home and it was like we had our own little life-sized christmas elf. so of course we did elves with bella. we even found one that sort of resembled our tiny dark-haired gal. by this time, the older kids got involved and that made it easier. i was happy to turn over the elf thing to their creativity. and so emily and tyler began setting up elf displays for the younger ones.

some of you are reading this and wondering what in the world “having elves” even means.

oh gosh. i know. and it makes me a little crazy to even explain that. but, here in the south, someone came up with the idea of having elves (little dolls) show up the month before christmas and get into all sorts of mischief — especially after the children go to bed.

so what that looks like is when the kids are finally asleep, worn out parents are cooking up creative messes with a bunch of dolls. (because the month of december has nothing else going on). and thanks to social media, i’ve seen some pretty spectacular displays over the years.

* snowball fights and winter blizzards re-enacted on kitchen counters with powdered sugar.
* edible bonfires created with pretzels and mini marshmallows toasted.
* chandelier circus act set up in the dining room.
* toilet-papered christmas trees.
* zip lines constructed from one corner of the house to another.

you name it, i’ve seen it.

one year, tyler set up all of connor's
action figures parade style
clearly, we owned too many action figures

i even knew one woman who removed all of the dishes from her kitchen cabinets and then excitedly announced to her children the next morning, “the elves did it.” i heard that and was like, okay, that’s it. i’m out. no matter how cool i want my kids to think i am, i’m not drinking the kool-aid which suggests i should create that level of chaos in my kitchen in the month of december to entertain my children, who are, in fact, already over-entertained.

the magic of christmas only goes so far in the mcnatt house. i’m sorry. i’m out.

except, i wasn’t.

i did the elves anyway.

i felt like an elf-addict; a creative-christmas-mom-wanna-be. and so i did it. sometimes exhausted and slightly over-wrought from a busy, bustling day, but i did it.

and then we moved to minnesota and really no one up there “does elves.” i assure you, they are way too busy digging themselves out of their driveways and trying to stay alive in negative 10 degree weather to have time for creating mischief in their kitchens. not that they aren’t fun people, but they just aren’t re-enacting bonfires with pretzels sticks for their children’s wonder, they are, instead, burning real wood to stay warm.

and so, with our move north, the elf thing kind of all fell away.

but y’all know the story: we came back south. and, come christmas, found that the elves were still going strong down here below the mason dixon line. maybe even stronger than before we had left. yes, i had to revisit this conflict once again.

now, at this point, i realize i am 658 words into an essay about elves. i haven’t once mentioned the birth of Jesus or advent or anything which really matters. i am merely writing about pretend elves and their antics. (as opposed to real elves, jody)? okay, moving on.

it’s ludicrous right? and that’s been my dilemma all along. with all that this month means, magical and merry as i might want to be, i just don’t know if i have it in me to whip out the elf stuff night after night. for some reason, especially in this season of make-believe, i am more aware than ever of the most brutal reality of so many. there are too many people in our world who have nothing elf-like about their lives. and no matter how many lights or shiny things we hang around our house, the needs and pain of others hangs heavy. and, truth is, trying to create some kind of spectacular elf spectacle can easily leave me at a loss.

it’s not just the hard stuff that has prevented my full and fun embracing of elves, but even the stuff i think is a thousand times more important to focus on: advent—preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus.  elves are nice, but it was the newborn babe who came to save the world. and how in the world can we do the advent wreath and the jesse tree and the real christmas story and still have time for elf mischief? i’m telling you, if we add up all that and the shopping and baking and wrapping and arranging and caroling and shipping and card addressing … it’s no wonder mamas might start drinking heavily or find themselves dead tired and delirious come christmas eve.

all that said, after a substantial hiatus, the elves returned to our home last night.

yes, you read that right.

what??? you’re head is spinning? mine's spinning, too. i realize i just made a complete case for the banning of elves from christmas forever.

except …

except bella is in 3rd grade now. and because she has four older siblings who have gone ahead and pretty much grown up on us, we know, all too well, that these years of child-like wonder are slipping right by us like minnesotans on a sledding hill. we will blink and she will be a teenager. and her december will be filled with final exams and other less than festive activities. and i look at my four teens and then i look at my little girl—still 8 years old and desperately hoping an elf will show up sometime soon—and there’s really no way i can hold back the elves this year any longer. i just can’t. i thought i could. but i'm caving. a few nights ago she prayed out loud about it and then last night, switching from God to santa, she even wrote out her request in her little journal. yes, she did.

so here we are.

after tucking bella in, i was sitting in front of the christmas tree deliberating over the great elf decision last night. connor, my only teenager still spending much time at our house these days, came down from his room, and hearing my big debate, said, “mom, i’ll do it! i’ll take care of the whole elf thing. don’t worry, i’ve got it covered!”

and without any hesitation he headed for the storage room to retrieve the elves from their crate and began constructing a zip line across our family room for their grand entrance.

and my heart, conflicted as it might be, swelled a bit with pride, because my boy, teenager or not, still loves this stuff, and even more, he loves his little sister. just like his older siblings took great pleasure in setting up grand displays for him every night, he will, in these next two weeks, do the same for bella. i will, however, absolutely forbid him to shower my kitchen with powdered sugar or remove all the dishes from my cabinets, but i will give him free rein to love on his little sister through the antics of her elves. because as magical as the elves might be to her, there’s nothing make-believe about the love of a big bother. it’s real and it’s right and as ridiculous as the whole elf thing might be, it’s even okay.

so here's the deal: i still don't know how i feel about elves. i'm so wishy-washy about it all you could probably convince me either way most days. i would love to hear your thoughts and even your argument, but, please don't judge me. i promise you, there's not a bit of judgment coming your way. no matter how many elves you have or don't have, there's no judgment. none. i don't know how i feel about elves, but i do know i feel great about a big brother doing something sweet for his little sister. and, so that's that.

to elf or not to elf? who the heck really knows.

but, in our house, the elves are back. at least for now.

connor (age 5) and the elves. the sparkle in his eyes says it all.
bella, today.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

the presents not for us

it's december 8th and there's a small stack of presents wrapped on my kitchen counter.
probably a rather normal occurrence in many of our homes once we settle ourselves into the month of december. piles of presents and all sorts of other holiday hoopla, scattered here and there.

and though these gifts will be out the door at the end of this week, i have kind of enjoyed the spectacle of them piled high on the counter above the dishwasher and below the cup cabinet.
they are, most certainly, in the way. unavoidable. center stage. 

and they are causing a bit of a stir. 

"are all those presents for you, bella?" incredulously asked a couple of friends who had come to play at our house one afternoon this week.

a fair question to which bella quickly, and, if not a bit dramatically, replied, "no, those aren't for us. my mom is only buying presents for a little girl named serenity." with shoulders slumping and her body sighing, she continued, "everything she buys is only for that little girl who doesn't have stuff. there are no presents for us. none."

you can imagine the looks of horror traded across the faces of bella's friends in our kitchen as they wondered if this christmas mrs. mcnatt had, in fact, truly and officially, finally lost her ever-loving mind and was, indeed, only buying presents for someone other than her own children. imagine!

to hear bella tell it--i had.

presents only for another little girl. a little girl we don't know. a child we haven't even met. 

and nothing--not one single item--in the house for her own brood of children? how can this be? what in the world is this?

a christmas catastrophe? 

a mistletoe mistake?

a present-buying blunder?

a silent-night slip-up?

and where the little girls standing in disbelief around my kitchen counter might think so, my answer is no, not at all. none of the above. because as dismaying as it might seem to a few 8 year olds in early december, this is what christmas should be--a stack of presents in the middle of the kitchen for someone other than ourselves.

now, before y'all start joining up with bella's friends and feeling too badly for her and her siblings, rest assured, the mcnatt children will have gifts a-plenty under the tree come december 25th. but right now, this week, the focus is elsewhere. and it's truly the best christmas gift i can give my children: this gift of knowing it is not all about them.   

i love giving gifts. and i especially love giving to my children. it's a great joy to watch them unwrap something wished for. truly it is. and each christmas we take delight in figuring out a few surprises for them. but, that comes automatic to them--and to us. because of our human nature, there's no lesson needed in teaching them to want and to receive things, but much to be learned in how to give things away; how to think of someone else's needs or wants before our own. 

and, i'm not pretending for one minute in our house, that we always do that lesson well.  honestly, i write this and think sometimes our attempts are weak and unworthy. i know so many of you are doing wonderful and amazing things at the holidays. you are doing it much better. i know that.

but wherever you are and however you are doing it, let's all just agree that christmas affords an opportunity and the perfect occasion to embrace this practice --- and to give and receive and teach this present of selflessness.

it can be a stack of presents on the kitchen counter or a basket of goodies for a neighbor or a box of donuts for the firemen or time spent with someone shut in and lonely. but what a gift it is for each one of us to remove our eyes from our own wish list and turn them toward the seeing of another soul's need.

i don't know about you, but playing santa for my own kids, though joyful, has also come with a bit of heaviness and mixed emotion. when they were all little, it was crazy fun to watch them open one thing after another. rick and i got such a kick out of the chaos and energy spinning wildly around come christmas morning. but years ago, there was a christmas where i began to see it with a different set of eyes. i knew we were headed down that oh-so-tempting, but ultimately ugly, path of excess. it was going to happen if we didn't curb our enthusiasm and give ourselves some guidelines and parameters in our gift buying. we had five kids and when multiplied by many gifts for each child it equated to what felt like a tremendous amount of too-much. and that wasn't what we wanted our christmas morning message to be.

somewhere in that next year, i stumbled upon a little "christmas morning formula." and, loving its simplicity and ease, we quickly embraced it for our own. to this day, it's how we do our gift buying in december. i wanted to share it with y'all, not as the only way to do december, but as one way which has worked for our family. it has helped keep things under control and helped keep that christmas wish list a little more realistic so that we truly can look outside of what's under our own tree and see the reality of others.

it's not only a good guideline, but comes as a catchy little rhyme making it easy to remember! we ask our kids to consider these four items and their four gifts:

something i want.
something i need.
something to wear.
something to read.

that's it. nothing too terribly earth shattering, but simple. easy. clear. and that's how our gift buying for our own children looks. times five kids, it's still a lot, but it has become a lot less chaotic and crazy in these years when we stick to this. and, no, we don't always adhere to it perfectly.  (my husband--especially--finds little ways around it).  =)  in addition to this formula, i should probably tell you we also try to do some kind of experience or family gift -- like, oh-my-gosh, a brand new puppy last year -- TUCKER!

again, i'm not saying this is the only way, but i do encourage you--especially you young mamas--to find freedom with a few good strategies which can help make your christmas more meaningful and your silent nights a little more sane.

those presents on our counter are for serenity. seriously, that's her name. and it's perfect. giving gifts and serenity do go hand in hand.

the very foundation of christmas began with a gift. the gift of a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. that gift is everything. it is all things. it is the only thing. and dear friends, we must do whatever it takes to keep that simple, extraordinary, most magnificent gift -- the message of our christmas morning.

"in character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity."
                                                                                ~ henry wadsworth longfellow