I Don’t Wish You A Merry Christmas

I’ll be upfront. We mainly started the charity card tradition as a pre-emptive strike against Gift Disappointment. We figured we’d pair our kids’ presents with an Oxfam picture of a similarly-aged child who was thrilled just to be getting vaccinated and they probably wouldn’t curse us so badly for failing to shell out for the six-thousand-dollar doobywhatsit everyone else’s parents were totally buying them because they obviously love their children more than we do.

But at three, P started asking questions. “Who’s this? Why’s he on my Christmas card? How come he’s holding a cup of milk?” Well, you know how three-year-olds are.

We’d bought a school lunch for some needy child somewhere. “Maybe this boy doesn’t get breakfast at home before school,” I explained.

It was a foreign concept to P. “What does he eat at home before school instead of breakfast?”

“Well, he might not eat anything. Some kids just don’t get enough food.”

“Have they been naughty?” Because, obviously, we starve P as punishment all the time.

Daily, since birth.

Daily, since birth.

It took a few more exchanges to sink in, but when it did, P stopped quite still for a full thirty seconds looking troubled and shocked. Then slowly, gradually, he leaned in for a long, tight hug. In hindsight, it might have been more appropriate to sponsor some textbooks.

This year, P’s six. Old enough, it turns out, to declare loudly in front of the nice man from World Vision (and a surrounding throng of shoppers) that he doesn’t want a card with “those people” on it for Christmas. You know how dialogue is sometimes described as being “spat out”? Yeah, well, P did that.

But first he twisted his face into a scowl and emphasised the words “don’t want” by striking his fist twice against the palm of his other hand, just to get everyone’s attention. Only then did he jab his finger at a card and spit the words “those people“. It was a bit like the time I was fourteen and Mr R, our science teacher, asked me a question about aquatic organisms and in my answer I forgot to pronounce the third syllable of the second word, except everyone in the entire shop was looking at me as if I’d actively taught my child to be racist.

We moved to one side. “You’ll still get your own present, P. The card’s extra,” I assured him. But that wasn’t it. Grudgingly, he suggested a compromise where he got a card with a chicken on it, as long as no human face was included in shot.

“It’s complicated,” he said, looking at his hands as I probed him for an explanation. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

I’ve heard parents say they want their children to be happy. We’re supposed to bend over backwards for it; make it our main goal. We’re supposed to shelter them from truths, and invent complicated lies. “Yeah, he wears a red suit. What? Well the sleigh’s air-conditioned, you see, anyway, he probably takes his coat off somewhere south of Japan. He visits every child on earth.”

I don’t really want my kids to be happy. I mean, I don’t want them to be unhappy, at least not excessively. They’ll get presents, some from Santa, and we’ll even leave a bucket of water out for his reindeer, plus the reindeer food I bought from the RSPCA which P claims they won’t like because apparently glitter isn’t part of a balanced diet, even a magical diet. I’m not sold, though, on the concept of Permanent Fun Time.

As P played in the bath the next day, I tried again. “Does it bother you to think of all the kids out there who don’t have what they need? Is that why you don’t want a card with a picture of a person on it?” P’s agreement was so muted it was barely a whisper. I nodded. “That’s good,” I said. “I’m glad it bothers you.”

It’s human to turn our distress into anger and ignorance; to tell ourselves that the needy must have something of at least equal value; to ask whether they deserve their fate; to look firmly away. “Your conscience has to speak to you somehow when things aren’t right. What you’ve got to work out is how to answer.”

The bathwater swished through P’s fingertips as he considered, but it didn’t take long for him to speak. “Ok, I’ll take one card,” he said. Here it is: 2014 World Vision Christmas Card It doesn’t say “Merry Christmas”. Instead, I’ll wish him what I wish for you, too: all the best this season, and for the new year.