Christmas, probably more than any other of the feasts, is for the family. We see this not only in the icon in which the Christ-Child is lying in the manger, swaddled in the love and protection of His family but also in the popular association that Christmas has with presents, which are almost always and in every case most enjoyable when we exchange them with our family.
The exchanging of gifts in the Serbian Christmas tradition, however, differs slightly from the commonly known custom of waking early on Christmas morn to the frantic unwrapping of presents. In fact, it has nothing to do with the actual day of the Nativity but is rather spread out over the course of three weeks – the three Sundays before the feast, known as Children’s day, Mother’s day and Father’s day. These days are observed with the tying of children, for instance, on children’s day so that they might “buy” their freedom from their parents by giving them gifts. Similarly, on mother’s day mom is tied up just as dad is tied up on father’s day, all of whom can easily be freed of their bonds through the bestowing of their gifts.
The reason this came to mind this evening is because I was out earlier today buying some presents, getting ready for my own captivity – or more correctly – buying my escape. I took the scenic route home, the country roads that wind up and down the Pennsylvanian hills which take me through the peaceful Amish community. There was a group of Amish children sledding down a small hill near their modest looking schoolhouse. They seemed so happy and excited in their recreation. For a fleeting moment I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. There they were excited about a little hill; they play with simple, wooden toys; all of their games and toys are so primitive. They’re missing out on the real excitement – the amusement parks, roller coasters, video games…!
But then I thought of the excitement in their faces sledding down that hill, the same hill they probably go sledding down each winter. I don’t think kids can go summer after summer on the same roller coaster. They seek not only variety but they crave more scarier, more thrilling ones, particularly the ones with names like “Demon”, “Demon Drop”, “Mind Eraser”, “Python”… This goes not only for roller coaster rides but video games, movies – everything is more, more, more. The desire is insatiable. Maybe, in the end, when the Amish look into our world and see how our children live, perhaps it’s them that feel sorry for us.
Certainly I’m not implying I want to be Amish. Not in the least. But it is always nice to take that scenic road, through Amish country, to see them content in their simplicity. I believe we can be just as content and happy as they are without having to give up the modern world and its conveniences.
Maybe when the children tie me up on Sunday I won’t rush to my freedom. Maybe I’ll let them suffer a little before giving them their gifts. I’m sure I won’t last long before giving in but at least for those few moments I’ll be able to get my gift, the happiest gift of all – seeing the excitement and joy in their faces.