I took out my old nativity set which consisted of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Baby Jesus, a donkey and a cow. I told Shorty we should make a little stable for them, which she thought was a great idea. She said so. My mother gave me a pack of popsicle sticks and so we glued and stacked until the whole lot was gone. We set up the scene with the new house of sticks, under our beautifully decorated (but very plastic) tree and sat there admiring our masterpiece.
Last year my daughter was too young to know the Christmas story, but this year I thought it should be easy. There's a mom, a dad and a baby. She'll love that. She already knew their names. Hmm. How to begin. I dove in head first.
"You know why we celebrate Christmas?" I started. See, I didn't want it to be primarily about gifts so I told her it was Jesus' birthday. Shorty smiled. She likes birthdays. Then, I asked "You know why we give presents? Because it's all about sharing."
I told her that Mary and Joseph got married. Then, an angel told Mary that she was going to have a baby and that she should name him Jesus. Shorty will find out later that they weren't married yet, when Mary got pregnant, but I'll leave that for Catholic school to explain. They're against pre-marital pregnancy; they can explain the Joseph part while they're at it. He wasn't really 'Daddy.'
"Then they left on a donkey because Mary was too pregnant to walk and went to Bethlehem." "Why?" Shorty asked her first question. In my head I answered 'For tax purposes,' but didn't want to be asked 'What's tax?' because I don't understand that either. Instead, I went with, "There was a mean king who wanted to steal babies." As soon as I said that, I knew instantly I had let St. Theresa's College (my old Catholic school for girls) down. Confusing Day of the Innocents with the Nativity Story should give me an overdue F on my report card. "Anyway," I continued, glossing over the humongous error in the story, "Baby Jesus was so special that three very smart kings went to see him and brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as birthday gifts." She asked me what those were. I told her coins for Baby Jesus' piggy bank and 2 kinds of perfume (weird combo but she didn't seem to be bothered by it.) I told her we celebrate Jesus' birthday because he was God's gift to us. "What's that?" "What's what?" "God," Shorty said flatly. I was appalled. We pray before meals, we pray at bedtime and go to church. She even dips her fingers in the holy font before she makes the sign of the cross but I never thought of what her impressions were of Him or Her. She never asked me until now.
How embarrassing that my daughter knows all about Santa Claus, and where he (supposedly) lives, and will jump through hoops for him. I heard my voice in my head "Santa's watching, better eat your peas," and she'll do it. I've been bribing my kid with the promise of a strange and very large man dressed in a terrible red suit to bring her presents.
Do I dare answer this question? How in the world did my mother answer mine? I know that the Catholic school I attended was run by liberal nuns who encouraged us to question, but prayer and the Holy Trinity was talked about and taught everyday; I don't think we ever stopped to really question anything. Who IS God? How do I explain something so abstract to a two year old when it's still a mystery to me?
I looked at her and decided that I'll tell her how I know God. "God is everything good. God is everywhere: the sky, the earth, the ocean, and," I said, "in here." I patted her chest where her heart is. I desperately wanted to add, "And God may not be a blue-eyed, white-bearded man either," but I bit my tongue.