A month ago, our 5-year-old asked me to lay beside him for a few minutes before he went to sleep so we could "talk about things." Touched, and a little humored by the serious tone of his request, I asked, "What kinds of things?" To which he responded, "Well … about the presents I want for Christmas." At least he got right to the point. To him the presents he hoped to get were a serious need. And the truth is children do need Christmas. But not for the reasons they may be led by a hyper-consumerist culture to believe.
For the last decade, Columbia University's director of clinical psychology, Lisa Miller, has done groundbreaking research revealing how natural and essential spirituality is in the lives of children and adolescents. Miller's research, in tandem with the brain imaging work of neuroscientists, demonstrates just how "hardwired" we are for spiritual connection. For children, an innate connection and trust in a higher power appears to come "as naturally as their fascination with a butterfly or a twinkling star-filled night sky." Children have a natural sense of divine presence, right and wrong, life beyond death, and that they and other creations are part of something bigger than themselves, something they have a natural bond with and can trust in.
Perhaps at no other time are adults more drawn to that natural sense of trust and wonder in children than at Christmas. There is a reason Charles Dickens writes famously in "A Christmas Carol," "For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas when its mighty Founder was a child Himself." When we connect with the "magic" of Christmas, we all become a little more childlike. We experience the meaning of the words Josh Groban sings in the theme song of the "Polar Express," a movie recounting a young boy's journey to the North Pole to witness the magic of Christmas, "When it seems the magic slipped away, we find it all again on Christmas Day. … You have everything you need, if you just believe."
But as Miller's research demonstrates, though we are biologically primed for it, the natural awareness of a relationship with a loving and guiding higher power must be nurtured and developed. Spiritual direction and values, especially when taught and received in loving family relationships, become "a bedrock" for human thriving. Patterns of spiritual connection in the first 10 years of a child's life become the foundation needed for the difficult work of the next 10 years: "individuation, identity development, emotional resilience, character, meaningful work, and healthy relationships."
When youths have worked with their own faith, and independently developed a personal transcendent relationship with God, (expressed in comments such as "I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty," or "When I have a decision to make, I ask God what I should do"), they experience a host of positive outcomes: higher self-esteem, positive outlook, stronger family and adult relationships, stronger moral reasoning and behavior, more community participation, better school behavior and outcomes, less risky or dangerous behaviors, lower levels of substance abuse and alcohol use and less crime and violence.
Those findings are partly why our children need Christmas. If we can keep it from turning them into "consumer children," Christmas can kindle and deepen the experience of transcendent spirituality, connecting them with something higher than themselves. There is no Christmas my siblings and I remember with deeper joy and meaning than the one we spent wandering the halls of a large hospital in Mexico City singing and performing for patients. Mom and Dad were conscious that Christmas could be much more than presents. They knew its potential power to connect us to God and others.
When Harvard researcher George Vaillant describes spirituality, he concludes it "is most real" in the feelings we experience for one another: "compassion, forgiveness, hope and joy." Spiritual feelings lead us to "feel the sacredness and wonder in the people around us," and to feel "compassion," the deepest emotion of spirituality. To feel spiritual is, in fact, to feel "the spirit of Christmas."
No one captures these feelings better than Scrooge's nephew in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, "I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely." It is worth trying to "keep Christmas well." Our children need it, and so do we.