The best part of Christmas is the journey to Dec. 25 with my grandsons, Tyler and Bryce.

At the age of 6, their rapidly developing brains are going to see right through Santa any time now. But they want the magic to last a little longer, so they’re not asking too many questions. Besides, they’re under the watchful eye of “George,” the tell-tale elf, who hides in a different spot in their house every morning (Saturday he was hanging from the mistletoe) and allegedly reports back to Santa on the Naughty-Nice behavioral scale. 

We talked about this. No one, we agreed, is ever all Nice or all Naughty. Some are more naughty than nice, some more nice than naughty, and some days we just bounce back and forth. Most of the time these two are mostly Nice and occasionally Naughty, but they do have their days — usually when they go to war with each other. We have frequent talks about doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you and definitely not doing unto brothers what he just did unto you. It’s a fine distinction, which they have trouble grasping, especially when fists are clenched.

They’re both thinkers, but Tyler has a way of stopping conversations. A couple of weeks ago as we watched a windstorm whiplash the trees, I pointed out a large pine that sashayed and swayed as if dancing. Tyler said, “Those don’t lose their leaves like other trees.” That’s why they’re called “evergreen,” I told him. He replied, “And people aren’t evergreen because they die.”

But Christmas is evergreen. Tyler wants a treehouse (as does Bryce), and he wants his bedroom decorated like a donut factory. He’s fond of donuts. So I’m giving him a copy of Homer Price and the Donut Factory a book from the 1940s that I grew up with. I’m giving both of them a coffee-table book on real-life treehouses that I found at Morton Arboretum, along with a note from Santa saying he couldn’t fit a treehouse in his sleigh, so this is the next best thing.

Bryce, meanwhile, is a word detective. When we finish reading, he asks for definitions. 

“There were a few pages I didn’t understand,” he says. With The Night Before Christmas, he wondered about “stirring,” “nestled,” “sugar plums,” “clatter,” “shutters,” “sash,” “breast” (of new fallen snow), “luster” (of mid-day), “coursers,” “hurricane,” “prancing,” “tarnished,” “soot,” “peddler,” “dimples,” “droll,” and “down of a thistle.” Reading a book with Bryce requires deep attention to the text.

We read another titled, Santa Claus is Coming to Chicago, which shows lots of famous city landmarks, including Buckingham Fountain. When I pointed it out, he said, “That’s a funny name. You shouldn’t call people Buckinghead.” 

Note to self: Enunciate.

They overthink their playing. I replaced the batteries in the toy train that circles their Christmas tree, and finally got it working. After exactly one circuit, they pulled out their toy tools and pretended it was broken again and needed fixing. 

When they play, they spend most of their time setting up a convoluted scenario — excuse me, two convoluted scenarios, which they then attempt to reconcile. Negotiations go like this: After a lengthy, detailed explanation by one, the other says “No!!!” It’s like watching Congress pass a bill. That’s when the precarious Naughty-Nice equilibrium tips in the wrong direction. 

They do better working on separate versions. A month or two ago, they drew pictures for me and created their own envelopes, heavily taped, with interesting attempts to address them. Nonetheless, I received Bryce’s (the much more confusing address) three weeks before Tyler’s, but his finally ended up in my mailbox last week. The drawing depicted Tyler crouching underneath a rainbow with rain falling from clouds, and wind gusts and a shining sun, all of which pretty much captures his overall temperament on any given day. Lots of rainbows with Tyler. On the drawing, he wrote, “I love Tyler.” I asked him if something was missing and he added a picture of me. But he wasn’t satisfied, so on a separate page he wrote “You” above the words “I Love.”

I told him I loved the way he changed to order from “I Love You” to “You I Love,” but he still wasn’t satisfied. He took it again and when he handed it back, it read:

Your Love

I Love

It’s like a four-word poem, which says so much more than merely loving someone because they love us. Because of Your Love, I Love. I Love your unique way of Loving Me. Through Your Love, I learn to Love. Through Your Love, I am able to Love. We pass Love on like a gene. 

Your Love, with all its limitations, affects how I Love. Love may be immature. It may be distant. It may be warm and nurturing. It may be incredibly generous or incredibly neurotic. Your Love is inextricably tied to how I Love.

Or not. I was totally exasperated, for instance, walking back to the car after taking them to see the Lego Train Show at Cantigny last Saturday, listening to Bryce sobbing over and over and over, heartbroken, “I want a Lego train! I want a Lego train!” It was too late, he lamented, to inform Santa.

Somehow, despite all that, the Love remains, undiminished. 

I’m just glad George the elf wasn’t there to see it. 

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