Teaching A Two-Year-Old to Love Christmas

I’ve always loved Christmas and was raised in a family that took full advantage of all the trappings of the season: lights, music, malls, movies, gatherings, games, gifts, and (of course!) God.

Even before I got married, I would think about what Christmas might look like when I started my own family and how I would indoctrinate my own children into the Yuletide fervor. With my daughter being a socially precocious two-year-old at Christmas this year, I figured this would be the first year that she would take a real interest1 and giddily awaited the opportunity to begin her education.

As it turned out, “taking an interest” was far too mild a description of Maddie’s nascent passion for all things Christmas. Here’s a very long rundown of just a few of the magical Christmas moments I want to remember.

The Decorations

The first signs of Christmas around our house were the interior decorations. Lights intertwined with fake holly went up in the dining room. Lights and ornaments hung with ribbon adorned our living room windows. Santa statues and nutcrackers lined our mantle. The nativity set and Advent calendar were set up. Most momentous of all, we put up our Christmas tree.

I was raised in a go-to-a-tree-lot-and-pick-out-a-real-tree family and always assumed I would continue that tradition in my own home. Since we’ve been married, we’ve run the gamut: We had a real tree one year, a fake tree the next year and no tree last year2 Since this was the year of Maddie’s Christmas awakening, I knew we would have to do it right.

On a sunny Saturday, we headed to Home Depot and picked out a decently full spruce. My images of Maddie being deeply engaged in the selection of her *first* Christmas tree were quickly shattered by her and Charlie’s3 need for a nap and resulting foul moods. We ended up swiftly selecting the spruce and strapping it to the top of the car.

Once home and fully napped, Maddie was much more interested in the actual decorating of the tree. I had received a Chicago Cubs Ben Zobrist ornament for St. Nicholas Day, and Maddie had routinely been asking about when we would put it on our eventual Christmas tree. As we were finally trimming said tree, she found the ornament and exclaimed, “Don’t forget Ben Zobrist!”

After all of the ornaments were in place, Maddie reveled in playing “I Spy” on the Christmas tree for the next several days, locating ornaments with photos or unique shapes. We spied Ben Zobrist, Baby Jesus, and a Yoda ornament at least a dozen times each.

The Music and the Movies

As I mentioned above (and blogged about frequently on a previous blog), Christmas movies and music hold a legendary place in my Ghosts of Christmas Past and persist into my Christmas Present. These were the Christmas legacies that I was most excited to pass on to Maddie–and they were also the things that she was most primed to receive.

While she’s still too young to delve into the psychological and emotional darkness of It’s A Wonderful Life4, we still managed to introduce her to a few classics, including A Muppet Christmas Carol, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, and White Christmas.

The animated Frosty half-hour special became a Christmastime treat that she would watch in increments while I changed her into pajamas every night. Watching about four minutes each night, she viewed the entire thing roughly four times during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Frosty–like every show or movie that she watches at her current stage–became fodder for frequent parental retellings. “Can you tell me the story of Frosty?” Eventually I would get her to try to tell me the story and she would use the same lines that I did. She would relate how it starts with a jisha-man (magician) who is doing tricks with eggs and then the kids get his hat and it “makes Frosty come aliiiive!” She also dealt handily with the emotional trauma of Frosty melting in a greenhouse and Santa bringing him back to life with a dose of Christmas snow.

I was wondering how we would ever get her to move on from watching Frosty every night at bedtime, but a Christmas miracle was brought on by the YouTube police, who happened to delete the illegally uploaded video some time right after Christmas. But I’m sure Frosty will be back again someday…

The real star of Christmas media though was White Christmas. After her one and only viewing of it, Maddie became OBSESSED with the plot, the songs, and the characters. My Mom gave her a Christmas dress that resembled the Santa-like dresses worn by the female characters at the end of the movie, and Maddie would ask to wear it around the house so she could pretend to be Judy (Vera-Ellen’s character) on some days and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) on others. Charlie and I took turns being assigned as Wallace and Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye).

We got an Amazon Echo Dot just in time for the Christmas season, and Maddie would frequently request that Alexa play various songs from the film. “Alexa, play White Christmas by Bing Crosby on Spotify.” Yes, she is very specific. After the Christmas season ended, she loved to “make Alexa play a funny joke” by requesting that Jingle Bells be played. She knew that the default version Alexa chose to play was sung by Frank Sinatra. Whenever a carol by Frank, Dean Martin, Andy Williams or another singer of their ilk would be playing, Maddie would ask me if it was Sinatra singing. I would tell her that it was not and she would chime in, “But he’s friends with Frank Sinatra!”

It was also amazing to see what a sponge her mind is right now. She internalized all of the information about Christmas stories and movies, but also learned the lyrics to a remarkable number of Christmas songs in a relatively short time. We would frequently find her singing them to herself–Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Must Be Santa (including the entire lineup of Santa’s reindeer by name), Frosty the Snowman, and much of the soundtrack of White Christmas.

She also took a keen interest in the redemptive powers of Christmas. After watching A Muppet Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, she would frequently offer analysis of how Scrooge and the Grinch were mean but then they learned to be nice. Whenever we watch non-Christmas things that contain “mean” characters, she always reminds us that they are “just like the Grinch!”

Christmas hit at the perfect time to truly unleash her fascination with storytelling and it’s a privileged time to continue to introduce her to new mythologies and characters. Next up: the classic Disney animated features!

The Reason for the Season

We would be remiss in our parental duties if we did not begin to educate Maddie on the true meaning of Christmas–the birth of Jesus. While her concept of God and Catholicism is still somewhat limited and fuzzy–most notable at Mass every Sunday and during prayer at meals and before bed–we still began planting the seeds of the importance and specialness of Jesus’ birth as it relates to Christmas. But the best gateway to her understanding was an unlikely source: the Fisher Price Little People’s Nativity set.

This toy, which Maddie received as a gift last Christmas, came to define the Christmas season in our house. Maddie was perpetually playing with it, which meant that Theresa and/or I was also playing with it. The journey from the basement Christmas storage area to the living room proved more difficult than the flight from Egypt for the Holy Family, as the Joseph figurine was lost. This drafted the shepherd into understudy duty as the step-dad of the Son of Man. And I was drafted into the duty of bringing Joseph to life.

While I haven’t had a chance to write a blog post about it yet5, I have thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Maddie has moved into the era of playing imaginative games with her toy figurines, and that I get to play along. The funny thing about Maddie’s games is that we are essentially playing real life. The Holy Family–conveniently a Daddy, Mommy and Baby, which is already Maddie’s favorite familial configuration for any toys that she is playing with–does all the things that our family does. They eat meals at Chili’s and Panera. They buy onesies for Baby Jesus at Target. Baby Jesus avoids taking naps. Baby Jesus gets his diaper changed.

That said, the things happening in these games are far from normal. One day, Maddie revealed that Mary was going to eat fries on the roof of the stable. I eventually realized that Maddie thought the plastic hay on the roof looked like fries! I also personally contribute to the chaos of these games by introducing my own wrinkles.6 Since I was in charge of Joseph, I decided that I would make him sound like Jimmy Stewart and worked into our game as many quotes as possible from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Turns out that’s pretty easy to do when both Joseph and George Bailey are walking around saying “Hey, Mary!” all the time. I also told her that the angel included in the nativity set was named Clarence.

While we have yet to try to explain the concept of a virgin birth, Maddie is quite obsessed with the idea of Mary being pregnant with Jesus and giving birth. Sometimes when she sees an image of Mary, she will just volunteer the idea that she is currently pregnant with Jesus and uses a sing-songy voice to indicate how overcome she is by the cuteness and wonder that “Jesus is in Mary’s belly!” She has also taken some interest in the idea of the wisemen following a star to find the Christ child and relatively early on could name all three of them. You haven’t laughed until you’ve heard a two-year-old say Melchior or Balthasar.

I was fearful that there would be an inconsolable separation anxiety from the Holy Family when the season came to a close, but when she received a dollhouse full of anthropomorphic bunnies, squirrels and hamsters–with a minivan!–it was clear that Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Clarence and the rest would indeed be able to fade into the Jerusalem sunset until next Christmas.

There are far more details that I could try to cram into this post, but I would rather at least get this stuff down for posterity. Maddie has moved on from nativities to dollhouses and from White Christmas to Singin’ in the Rain. This Christmas is emblematic of what a unique time we are experiencing in her life–where everything is still pure and wonderful and in need of detailed explanation. I know what Gloria Estefan was talking about now. It’s awesome to see Christmas–and everything else–through her eyes.

  1. Last year she was aware of Santa as a decoration on our mantle and noticed his post-Christmas absence–“Where Sah?”–but didn’t really get it yet.
  2. I know, I know. But Maddie was too young to know and the Christmas season went too quickly for it to be worth the effort for two sleepy parents.
  3. Remember him? He’s 8 months old already! I need to blog about him soon, too…
  4. my all-time favorite movie and one that will be difficult to determine when she is at the right age to watch it
  5. And let’s be honest…will I ever?
  6. usually to entertain Theresa who might be listening in on our games

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