For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.
-- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol" --
A few days ago, I was sitting in a chair reading my Bible when my four year-old daughter, Isabelle, suddenly burst into the room and declared that she had made up a new song. I noticed that she was clutching her purple recorder. Isabelle does not play the recorder. Only, she does. The plastic device was lined randomly with half-creased stickers from one of her many sticking-in books. It looks more like an oversized toy from a cracker, not a real instrument of music-making. However, I am led to believe that it could – on occasion – produce a basic, mostly-in-tune song, if pushed. Such an occasion would, of course, require someone who plays the recorder. And Isabelle does not play the recorder. But why should that stop her?
She’s four, after all.
At the apparent finale of the performance, as I geared up for my rapturous applause, she also announced the specific “title” of this song. Now, you really can’t make this stuff up. I imagined, for example, that this song title would have something to do with Christmas. We had put the decorations up the night before, and Isabelle had been immersed in watching and reading Christmassy-type stories since early November. Christmassy-type “material” was surely swimming around her mind, and thus it would make perfect sense for this to be a Christmassy-type “song”. She had decided, however, to go in a slightly different direction, and proclaimed, with absolute precision, that the song was called:
“When a turtle, an ice cream, and a tree went on holiday.”
If an adult sat down to write a song – even a “kooky” song or a “children’s” song – they would surely never choose those three things. Why is that, exactly? A turtle, an ice cream, and a tree are perfectly ordinary things; things we all know about; things that are not in any way bizarre. But to place them all together, to personify them, to make them friends, and then to send them all on holiday – that’s the kind of thing we adults just don’t have easy access to. We could do almost that, but not quite that. And that “quite” actually turns out to be an insurmountable difference. It’s not that we couldn’t think such a thing, it’s that we wouldn’t think such a thing. We would probably try and invent an entirely new set of creatures, or would try and make a more obviously “consistent” set, or even a more obviously “zany” set. Even if the combination seemed random, you’d probably be able to detect a strategy in the combination, which would immediately sacrifice the element of genuine surprise. I, for example, could imagine a turtle, an eagle, and an elephant going on holiday; I could also imagine an ice cream, a chocolate bar, and a mince pie going on holiday; at a stretch I could even imagine a tree, a car, and a post-box going on holiday – and any one of those holidays might be pretty bizarre. But I would probably not send a turtle, an ice cream, and a tree on holiday. I just wouldn’t. Why is that? Probably, I think, because it just seems like too much going on at the same time; too many crossed wires; no theme connecting it all together. Such a trio just don’t “fit”. What would a turtle, an ice cream, and a tree even have to talk about? Two of them don’t even have mouths. One of them is on the verge of melting. One of them is, well, a tree. I mean, if you’ve gone for the ice cream as your surprise second character, why on earth would you go for a tree for the third? (And she hasn’t even learned about ents yet).
It’s obvious that this peculiar blend of the simple and the ridiculous is far too outlandish for adults – and far too simple, too.
It’s no coincidence that children often seem to be the centrepiece of the festive Christmas season. All the lights and bells, the candles and colours, the sweets and songs, they’re all really – we say – “for the kids”. But when each of us celebrates, we’re probably also trying to evoke something of our own lost childhoods, when we too were able to send turtles, ice creams, and trees on holiday together without batting an eyelid. For those who sense that Christmas is yet more than mere festive cheer (though festive cheer is no small thing), they may also recognise that the child who once came amongst us came to reverse those terribly “adult” ways of seeing the world. Not only to show us that the path to eternal life and meaning is through Him (also no small thing), but to show us all the ways we were supposed to imagine the world as He first imagined it, before we messed it all up.
And it doesn’t take a Dickens to tell us that that’s what Christmas is actually about.