Every year, I feel conflicted about Christmas cards. They’re impersonal; many on our Christmas card list hear from us once a year, and at best we send them a form letter. Christmas cards can seem braggy; we showcase our best photo and write a rosy update — no mention of the potty accidents or the fights or the dusty corners. Christmas cards have absolutely nothing to do with the real Christmas, and they’re a lot of work and expense at a time of year that’s already stressful and expensive.
But every year I cave in and create a Christmas card, because I really like getting Christmas cards. (And the best way to get, of course, is to give.) Erick and I have crossed the country twice during our 11 year marriage, so we have a lot of dear friends whom we never see. I treasure the annual cards we get from these friends; once Christmas is over, I cut out all the photos and string them around the entryway to our dining area so that we can remember our loved ones whenever we sit to eat.
It’s become a major challenge to take our Christmas card photo. This year we waited until my parents were in town for Thanksgiving; they provided extra hands AND adorable matching dresses for our four girls. We decided to take the photos out in our yard, which is prettier and cleaner than the inside of our house.
On Thanksgiving morning we woke to find that it had snowed overnight; the temperature was 20-something, which we hadn’t considered in our plans to take outdoor photos, but thankfully our girls are hardy. We’d just have to take the pictures quickly, which we’d be doing anyway with four children.
I set up the tripod, showed my father which button to press, and then with a “GO!” we herded all four of our girls outside for a fast-and-frigid photo session.
By some miracle, we took more than one photo in which everyone’s eyes were open and everyone was looking in the same general direction. I chose a final photo in which everyone except me looks pretty good. (I think I look kind of horsey in the winning shot, but motherhood is about sacrificing vanity, right?)
We don’t have many photos of all six of us, so this was one of my first opportunities since the birth of our fourth daughter to see us together in one frame. And what struck me was this: My children are really small.
I know in my head that they’re small. But because I’m with them all day long, because at the moment they are essentially my job, my children often seem larger-than-life. Their joys, tantrums, struggles, gifts, and flaws — all of these things consume my mind and heart. But there they are on paper: little tiny people. Even my oldest daughter, the six-year-old who now seems impossibly gangly — she barely reaches my armpit.
Our Christmas card photo was a tangible reminder that children are small. As parents, we give them such large spaces in our lives that we can forget how unfinished they are. It’s not wrong to love our children largely, of course, but it can warp our perspective. We imagine that today’s problem will never be resolved, that the way they are now is the way they always will be.
But that’s highly unlikely. Just as their bodies will grow and change, so will their characters. There’s a lot of LIFE that (God-willing) will happen to these tiny little people between now and adulthood.
Which is where the fudge comes in. For our family, fudge is a Christmas food — a recipe passed down by my grandmother, which we only make during the holidays. It’s not difficult to make fudge, but it tends to impress people. Here’s how:
1. Melt a bunch of chocolate chips (2 cups milk chocolate, 1 cup semisweet) in a double boiler. The chips will become a smooth swirl of melted chocolate, and you’ll think you can stop there, but you can’t…
2. …because you have to add salt (a pinch), vanilla (1.5 tsp), and sweetened condensed milk (1 can). It’s the condensed milk that makes things funky. Suddenly, that smooth swirl of chocolate begins to thicken and curdle. Lumps appear. You stir until your wrist and shoulder ache, and you think to yourself, “I’ve RUINED it! Why did I add that condensed milk?!? This will never, ever become smooth.”
3. Just when you’re about to give up and toss the lumpy mess, something happens: All that stirring suddenly pays off, the lumps disappear, and the mixture becomes smooth once more. Pour it into a pan and chill it, and it emerges as gorgeous, melt-in-your mouth fudge.
This year, while I was grunting and cursing during the fudge’s condensed milk stage, I realized that making fudge is a lot like making people. Some say God is like a watchmaker; I think He’s more like a fudge maker.
Children start like melted chocolate chips: they look good, but their characters are thin. Then life begins to complicate things. The condensed milk of life is heartbreak, disappointment, mental and physical pain, the character flaws that keep getting us into trouble, poor decisions. We see our children experience these things, and for a while they may look pretty lumpy. “They’re ruined!” we wail, “They’ll never come out right!”
But if they survive the condensed milk stage, most people emerge as fudge, with richer characters for having endured some lumpiness. I remember learning, years after the fact, that my father experienced a crisis of faith during my own condensed milk stage (your typical bad break-up/depression/eating disorder): How had God allowed his beloved daughter to become such a mess? When I heard that, I thought, “Dad, don’t you understand? That time is what made me! It wasn’t much fun, but without it I’d still be the kid who threw a tantrum over the new color you painted the front door!” (True story.)
So this year, our Christmas card and fudge revealed some valuable parenting lessons: Let them have time, and let them have trouble, and more than likely it’ll come out okay.