December and Magic

December 30, 2009 | 4 comments
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December, like childhood, is an opportunity for us to experience an enchanted world, and regain some of the understanding we too quickly lose – and often anxiously jettison – after childhood. While the beginning of Mormonism is steeped in magic – peepstones, guardians, mystical dates, occult translations, etc., etc., etc. – to the point that we moderns sometimes feel embarrassed, I think most of us continue happily somewhere between medieval enchantment and modern disenchantment. But I think the magic of our childhood – which too often only shows up to us now as child-ish – is one of the more beautiful and perhaps necessary experiences of mortality.

For me, this has happened – conspicuously – after having children. Here’s where I insert a few concrete experiences to try and illustrate what I mean – and here’s where it get’s difficult. Magic doesn’t seem so conducive to prose, and the experience are so ordinary that their retelling still sounds vague; but I’ll try. First, my kids have a way of being utterly, completely enraptured in the experience – and particularly in magic ones like Christmas. Their truly prodigious talent for enduring (and perpetuating) repetition seems to serve them well here. I see this in the way they play, caught away into worlds of fantasy; but even more in how they are caught away into the here and now of holiday celebration. It’s not merely in the way that asking them at any given point what’s special they’ll answer correctly, but in the way they constantly experience the special nature of the season. I didn’t hear one mention of boredom or disinterest or complaint to do something else for a week. Anticipation. Thrill. Immersion. Communion.

Closely related to this, interrelated with it, is their joy. Our children have an ability to take utter delight in everything that we do in the holidays – decorations, songs, fudge & wassail, stories & poems, surreptitious giving, wrapping and unwrapping presents. They break out into spontaneous singing and dancing as if they were in a Broadway musical. My girls literally danced in the aisle to special musical numbers at church; and looking around, I saw that they weren’t unique. They even seem to genuinely enjoy the agonizing pain of being forced to bed against their desperate wills on Christmas Eve. My son, unable to contain himself demanded that we all go to bed, and in the same breath begged to stay up. They enjoy the holidays and their holy festivities with a full-bodied intensity that is unavoidably contagious.

Now, lest I delude myself with only the positive, I need to admit that all of the marvelous and magical passion and ebullience of my children at times erupts in fantastic explosions –  tantrums, screaming, tears, and even violence. In the abstract I can look at even this with a smile, but in the concrete moment my attitude isn’t nearly so philosophic, and I sometimes erupt with my own fits –  tantrum, screaming, etc. But my parallel reaction actually serves to juxtaposition our two experiences. Among my children, the tantrums erupt with the speed of lightning. But so does the forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to enchantment. At my very best I sort of do the opposite – maintaining a failing grasp on composure until finally erupting, and then only slowly regaining my yuletide cheer. (My humility only extends so far here, so I’ll not embarrass myself with actual examples.) I’m convinced we live in different worlds. It’s not just that my children have a natural disposition to forgive and forget that I lack, I think they experience the world as a place where instantaneous forgiveness is a prominent possibility, the obvious default. How else would a magic world be?

Finally, let me mention something perhaps entirely gone from our disenchanted world, but which I catch a glimpse of vicariously, through my children: sacred time. Our temples and pilgrimage sites have salvaged something of the experience of sacred space, but I don’t think even our traditions have salvaged sacred time. My children, however, seem to experience sacred time – time that is in a literal sense connected with sacred events from the past. My four year old daughter told me that because it was Christmas time, she could feel Mary and Jesus and the new star. Children genuinely seem to sense the difference, the change, the union of certain times with certain events, to literally be carried away back into time of original celebration, and this is nowhere so evident as on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes we talk of sensing angels near, the veil growing thin, and the like. The transformation my children bring into our home, into the very air we breathe, into our life so often, and especially during Christmas, is more appropriately called magic.

Like much in life, my articulation here doesn’t begin to capture the re-enchantment I feel on account of my children; my words stand out as starkly profane. But my experience is genuine. It really is magic. My wife and I discuss the connection between childhood and magic often, and many of our discussions came before our children, but it’s my children that give me an existential understanding, that re-connect me to the magic of my own childhood. And this is nowhere so palpable as in December.

We believe that one of our main purposes in mortality is to learn, and that there are certain things we can learn here in our mortal environment that we were incapable of learning in the presence of our Heavenly Parents. Nevertheless, I think we too often assume that our learning only really begins once we become adults. When childhood is considered, it’s usually a sort of preparation period for our becoming adults, when everything that really matters begins – mission, college, marriage, temple, raising children, meaningful callings, careers, etc. I think this assumption goes along with the assumption that learning, understanding, gaining truth, are all propositional activities – that if we’re learning, we are capable of articulating what’s been learned, or are capable of grasping someone else’s articulation of the lesson. Children aren’t so good at this.

But this doesn’t seem to matter to Christ, who counsels us repeatedly – in both Christian and uniquely Mormon scripture – to become like little children. Surely we’re learning vital things as children, our (enchanted) experience as children is surely as valid in terms of potential learning, growth, progression, as our (disenchanted) experience as adults. It’s sometimes seen as scandalous that we baptize children at eight, that we extend this sacred and eternally meaningful activity to those who in some senses are incapable of grasping it. But, having recently attended several eight-year-old family members’ baptisms, I’m convinced that there are certain things children grasp about their baptisms that are frequently lost on us adults. The magic of the experience being one of them. In my own life, I don’t find a richer doctrinal or more complicated volitional experience as more worthwhile than my ability to experience the sacredness of the event and the love of my mortal and heavenly family.

December, with the opportunities it provides for us to immerse ourselves in love, tradition, family, worship, music, and merriment; with its tremendous power to shake us out of the everyday; with its opportunity to experience that rarity in modernity, sacred time; and perhaps most of all, December with its ability to powerfully re-connect us to our childhood, can re-infuse us with that most crucial of mortal experiences: magic.

4 Responses to December and Magic

  1. Robert C. on December 30, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Great thoughts, James, thanks. Our oldest is 4 yrs. old and this is the most excited he’s been about Christmas, so our house was more magical than previously this past December, and it got me thinking about similar issues in our mostly disenchanted, modern, secular world (likely since I recently read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age which deals with this topic at length…). Anyway, thanks again for this ode to enchantment, very thought-provoking.

  2. James Olsen on December 30, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Yes, I ought to acknowledge Taylor. I wasn’t thinking specifically about A Secular Age, but it’s one of my favorite books, and has had a big impact on me.

  3. Jim F. on December 30, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    That Taylor has had a big impact on you is a sign of your wisdom, James. Thanks for this.

  4. Robert Ricks on January 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for the beautiful thoughts, James. Knowing your children, I can certainly imagine their experiencing the holidays with magic and uninhibited delight.