My family celebrated Christmas on December 26. So already, we'd made the kids wait. Then, that morning we gathered at 10am for brunch and kept the kids out of the gifts with some sugar and fat in the form of my mom's famous sticky buns that my niece and I had made the day before. In the end, the sugar may not have been the best idea, because 30 minutes later we headed to the family room - finally! - and the kids started pulling out gifts they'd spotted for themselves. The ones who couldn't read their names nagged their parents to find them gifts.
And they were off. Paper flew, fists pumped in the air, cries for help shot up.
Easily stimulated, I sat in the corner, sipping my lukewarm coffee and quietly observing. After a few gifts, the frenzy started to slow, along with the sugar that had been coursing through veins. The mood began to drop when a child realized a big, exciting-looking gift had someone else's name on it, and worse, when they had to watch that other kid open it and respond with excitement. And one niece, on opening the gift I bought for her, realized halfway through opening it that it wasn't anything she'd been excited to receive, and almost left it only half opened. My sisters hugged and chided their children. I tried distraction with a game of wrapping paper basketball (the basket being the trash bag, of course). And soon enough the kids were outside getting ready for the park before the snow and rain trapped us inside while parents piled the abandoned gifts back under the tree.
I watched all of this and thought about the gifts I've been asking for, and how some of my friends have gotten them before me, even friends who weren't asking for them. If there is a Big Issue I've struggled with in my adult life, it's a variation on this one: why do some people get exactly what they want, while others have to wait? Jobs, relationships, children, accomplishments. It's a tricky question, asked from the perspective of the person who feels slighted, which distorts it with blame-placing and an inward focus. In the weeks before Christmas, one friend had received a really big gift in a pretty exciting way. I'd been asking for it for a long time, and yet she hadn't even been looking for it. So I could empathize with my nieces and nephews as they watched others open gifts and didn't have the heart to share in their happiness.
But I also remember gazing at my nephew as he watched his cousin open a gift and willing him to be happy for her. To experience the joy of joining in her gratefulness. It's not exactly instinctual, but I bet it could become so. I've been trying, and though it feels uncomfortable and unnatural - much like practicing better posture, shoulders back, stomach in, no slouching - it feels right. Like I'm standing up straight.