At Christmastime, how do we return to the child-like?

If Norman Rockwell had painted a picture of the American family on Christmas morning (which he didn't - I checked), I imagine it would show kids in their pajamas around a Christmas tree. There would be a little girl with ringlets playing with her dollies (how's that for 1950s speak?) and her big brother playing with a train set. There would be tired but contented parents, sipping their steaming morning coffee as they watch their progeny with pride.

You can almost see the scene develop. The kids would eat a hearty breakfast, dress in their winter clothes, and wave happily back toward the house as they go outside. They would almost certainly pass the snowman they'd made in the yard complete with coal for eyes and a carrot for the nose. And then, surrounded by snow-laden conifers, they'd go sledding on their new red Radio Flyer sled.

This Christmas fantasy belongs to a whole genre of images about childhood that folks my age are apt to carry around. It's a genre that harkens to a time when many things were different, not the least of which, is play. In my memory, at least, play was grounded in freedom and creativity. It was what kids did that, unbeknownst to them, prepared them for the adult world that awaited them.

Today, not all play - but much of it - appears prescribed, leaving little room for creativity. Ironically, it seems constrained by the creativity of others, like the inventor of the latest electronic gadget or the programmer of the latest video game. These are the folks who create much of the world in which our kids play - a world that leaves little room for their own imagination and creativity. Is the world for which this play prepares our kids the world we want? Perhaps it is. But I wonder.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, "... unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." I wonder how we adults are to make ourselves childlike without becoming childish.

Might play and play's companion, art, be the key for some of us? When we engage in play and when we give ourselves to the practice of an art, we are for the moment freed from the tyranny of time. We enter a state of unselfconsciousness - like children. And we are opened to feel connections that perhaps we have never felt before and see those connections with wonder and surprise. It is out of that sort of state that creativity can arise. And without creativity, there is no new creation, perhaps not even the creation of God's reign.

Meister Ekhart, a 13th century Christian mystic, wrote that, "some people do not bear fruit because they are so busy clinging to their egotistical attachments and so afraid of letting go and letting be that they have no trust either in God or in themselves." Children in play, the artist in creating are not afraid of letting go.

Some artists will seek an ideal, but some will throw caution to the wind and follow where the creative spirit leads. Children often go out of their way to experience ecstatic highs. They hang upside down or climb to the highest swaying branches of trees or spin around until they literally fall down. At least, children used to do these things. And then an all-adult, often male world invented video games. These often focus on blowing up things, people and entire worlds, and redefined play.

At the same time, we began to over-schedule life, right down to our kids' lives. Dave Goetz writes that "To play is to take a stand against efficiency, rampant scheduling, and a control-obsessed culture. To play is to create holiness in time, when, for a morning or afternoon, there is no reason or utility for the activity - only for the pure joy of it."

In the coming season of the Incarnation (Christ's birth) a child features prominently both in our religious iconography (picture the Nativity scene) as well as in our cultural fixation on providing the "perfect" Christmas for our kids. I'm not so na´ve as to believe dollies and Radio Flyers will be the Christmas gifts of choice this year. I do suspect, though, that many of us in our heart of hearts long for the peace and simplicity of a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Art and play could be one way for us to be faithful to the Christ who, especially in this season, calls us to become like little children.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or rector@stbarnabascortez.org.