I’ve got streaming radio on right now. Mabel just caught a few words of the latest song.

“Christmas, Mommy! Christmas!”

Seven months ago Mabel joined our family. She spoke Amharic, a beautiful language from her birth country. Unlike many 20-month-olds, she already expressed herself well in her native language. Then we came along.

For the first few days in Ethiopia we heard one phrase over and over again, translated roughly to “Hey you!” Wherever we would go, she would holler “Hey, you!” to strangers. I assume she was trying to find her way back to something familiar. Hey, you! Will you take me back? Rescue me from these strange people! Hey, you! Help!

Today, she can sing her own endless version of Jingle Bells. She recognizes lights, Santa, and snow. A new world has opened up. There are a lot of Christmas words to learn! As a former Spanish teacher, I study her language development like it’s a part time job. Every word and concept she discovers is like a newly discovered country. This is an adventure. But it is also a loss. As she fills her language centers with a new language, another one is slowly slipping away. (But that is another post.)

The milestones have continued steadily for seven months.

In the beginning, she had big thoughts to communicate to us, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • I’m scared.
  • You’re scary.
  • Where’s my home?
  • Where are my nannies?
  • Will you feed me enough?
  • Am I safe?
  • I’m all alone now.

We had big thoughts for her, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • Trust us.
  • We will meet your needs.
  • We are not going anywhere.
  • You are safe.
  • We love you.

And most importantly,

  • I will be right back.
  • This will just take a minute.

Yes, I wanted my daughter to feel loved. Yes, I wanted her to know my unwavering commitment to her, but we quickly discovered that the most powerful concept that we needed to communicate was “We will not abandon you.”

We will be here. Even when you can’t see mommy (because she’s in the shower or taking care of George or taking a nap), she will never leave you. Daddy will come back upstairs. George will come home from school. Nobody is really going anywhere.

The first day that Mabel was in our custody, she started using English words. Her linguistic abilities astounded us. By the time we had our first check-in with the social worker at six weeks, she already had fifty words in her vocabulary. Now we can’t even count them anymore. Many two-year-olds have a dozen or so words, and our daughter can now hold a conversation that lasts for several minutes. But one phrase eluded her for months:

I’ll be right back.

By the time an average child has reached 20 months, she has heard “Mommy will be right back” maybe thousands of times. She may not know exactly what the words mean, but she is comforted by this. She goes into daycare, or nursery, or nap time with that phrase on her lips.

But Mabel had no idea what we were trying to say. And those phrases are abstract. “Be right back?” You can’t draw a picture of that. You have to live it, prove it, be it every day over and over and over. But Mabel just didn’t get it.

For five months of Mabel’s life, bedtime was tragic.

For five months, there would be no childcare outside of mommy and daddy.

For five months, church nursery was impossible.

For five months, Mabel clung to us, afraid to be left behind or abandoned.

Then one day in October something changed. One day she was afraid. The next day she trusted. And it was all about “Mommy be right back.” When she learned that phrase she was able to let go and nap. She was able to let go and have a babysitter. She was able to let go and go to Sunday school. She was able to let go of Mommy and find comfort in Daddy’s arms. It became her mantra.

Going to bed, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Going to church, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Sending us on a date, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

I thought “Mommy loves you” or “Mommy cares for you” or “Trust Mommy” would be the most powerful concepts in our attachment arsenal, but for now, it’s “Mommy be right back.”

This Christmas, as Mabel sings carols to us, as her eyes light up when she recognizes Santa Claus in pictures, as she tries to figure out the little people in the manger scene, we are filled with tidings of comfort and joy. For a two-year-old, the Good News is about being safe, wanted, loved, fed, and never far from home.

This Christmas, her first Christmas in English, Mabel knows the Good News: Mommy will always be right back.



(Hi everyone. This is Andy, Mandy’s husband, and she’s allowed me to guest post today.)

There’s a song we don’t sing in our household around Christmas. “You better watch out, you better not cry.” Before having kids, I thought that was a slightly weird song. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.” But now that I’ve got two kids and they’re looking to me to set the tone for Christmas, this song is out. Change-the-radio-station forbidden in our house. We celebrate Christmas as a time where we recognize that Jesus, in some mysterious, ineffable way, is a gift, completely undeserved and unmerited. We celebrate that by participating in the joy of giving gifts to one another. There’s no watching out needed, no need for crying or pouting. Our Santa is more like Saint Nicholas of old than the hyper-organized list-maker of this song.

But now that categorizing fat man is at it again. This time, with elves.

The Elf on the Shelf, if you don’t know, is a creepy little minion of Santa’s who appears somewhere in your house by day to spy on your kids and then disappears to the North Pole every night to report on each child’s naughtiness or niceness. “The Elf on the Shelf is watching you,” the song goes, completely oblivious to the irony of its cheerful melody, “what you say and what you do.”

Think Gestapo for kids.

And at first, I thought I could ignore it. That if I never tried to find the elf, I could turn his sneaky game of hide-and-seek against him and not have to worry about his toxic effect on Christmas. But it was not to be.

They are everywhere.

And that’s when I realized: this isn’t going away. I have to make a stand. Because the Elf on the Shelf represents everything I don’t want to be as a parent. The Elf on the Shelf stands behind me and says “do what he says, or else!” like some two-bit mobster. The Elf on the Shelf teaches kids that when you screw up, you get nothing, and when you do nice things, you get big, unnecessary presents.

In an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the goal of Christmas is getting stuff. Life is about pleasing a selectively omnipotent being in order to reap a reward of superfluous gifts. Who is this discerning benefactor, you ask? The younger kids think it’s Santa; in other words, God. The older kids know that it’s you. Is that how you want your kids to view you? You’re only there to give them good things when they deserve them? You’ll gladly ruin their holiday if their behavior passes a certain arbitrary ratio of naughty to nice? They can have whatever they want as long as first you get what you want?

Then of course you’ll take down the elf after Christmas. And so now—is there anyone watching? Now that the gifts are opened, what’s in it for me?

But in the real world, my kids could do nothing to keep me from loving them. I dare them to find a way for me to stop loving them. Because it will never, ever happen. And I love giving them gifts. I love lavishing upon them ridiculous amounts of toys and games and food and hugs and love. If they punch each other or scream too loud in the meantime, that’s not going to change how much I love to give them good things.

In the real world, this is Advent season, a season about expectation, the expectation of grace, not the expectation of merited favor. Christmas is about God pouring out unexpected and lavish grace upon the least deserving among us. About a surprising and upside-down gospel that takes everything you thought about merit and favor and riches and wealth and turns it on its head.

But in an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the angels show up to the shepherds only to sit up on the Milky Way and say “The angels in the stars are watching you, what you say and what you do—and God won’t send a Savior if you’re on the naughty list.”

Love, the Scriptures tell us, keeps no record of wrongs.

The Elf on the Shelf’s job is to keep a record of wrongs.

We have an Elf on the Shelf in our house, but he’s blindfolded, to remind our kids that nothing they can do will keep us from the joy we have when we give them good things at Christmas. And more importantly, nothing any of us might do will keep us from the joy of giving gifts to each other. Because it’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.