It’s not an unusual scene to witness in the Target toy aisle at this time of year. 

Children misbehaving and their parents threatening, “If you aren’t being good, Santa won’t give you any gifts this year!  He’s been watching you, so you better be good or else!”

Now let’s pause to rewind to another scene. One that took place in a town called Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Ann VosKamp, in her extraordinary children’s book, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, describes the scene this way:

God turned one last time as a Baby inside Mary, and then the skin of very God slipped naked and small into hands that He Himself had made.  This is the birth of God- who can find words?

And then, at last, all was calm. All was bright…… This night, our rescuer has come. God has visited our planet and we can breathe free!

God is here! Jesus is born to you- to YOU! And when we sin and fall and trip and aren’t happy with what God gives (that’s what sin is: thinking God isn’t enough) Jesus never stops loving us.  He comes and gives us Himself.

Isn’t that the most amazing, greatest Gift?

Two radically different scenes that communicate two radically different messages. 

“Santa is coming. Be good!”   or   “Christ has come.  Be free!”

As we lead our children through this Advent season, might we pause to ask ourselves which message we want to communicate to our children them?

But real, lasting joy – the kind that lingers long after the material gifts have been unwrapped and discarded - comes when we remember and celebrate that because of the birth of Jesus, God can’t stop loving us.

Because the heartbeat of Christmas was never meant to be “do a year-end performance evaluation, assess whether you’ve been more naughty or nice, and then wait to be rewarded accordingly.”

The heartbeat of Christmas is, “Christ has come.  Love has won. Be free from striving to be good enough.”

The only One who was (and is!) “good enough” is Jesus.  He perfectly fulfilled the rigorous demands of God’s law on our behalf, therefore securing God’s love for us and good gifts to us!

And now we are free to love God and serve one another, not out of obligation or in an effort to gain God’s favor, but in deep awe and gratitude for the lavish love God has already given us in the birth of Jesus Christ.

What will make your child’s heart leap this Christmas?  Yes, presents.  Let’s keep it real.  Unwrapping the gifts they’ve asked for will bring them much temporary happiness. 

But real, lasting joy – the kind that lingers long after the material gifts have been unwrapped and discarded - comes when we remember and celebrate that because of the birth of Jesus, God can’t stop loving us. God can’t stop accepting us. God can’t stop being pleased with us. Just as we are, not as we wish we’d been all year.

His kindness toward us on Christmas morning (and every other day of the year) is not a result of our goodness, but His. 

He doesn’t give us more because we’ve tried really hard to be good and succeeded.  And He doesn’t give us less because we’ve ran and rebelled and failed to remember Him.

The great gift we celebrate at Christmastime -  the unconditional love of God in the birth of Christ - comes unearned and underserved.   

So go ahead-  tear up the naughty and nice lists that focus your kids on the material.  And give them a Christmas that celebrates the thrill of the miracle. 

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11) He came to do for you and for me what we could never do for ourselves.   The greatest gift has already been given!

So come. Come let us adore Him! Because we are secure in God’s unfailing and forever love.

Jeannie Cunnion is the author of "Parenting the Wholehearted Child," and a blogger at www.jeanniecunnion.com. She has a Master's degree in Social Work, and her background combines counseling, writing, and speaking about parenting and adoption issues. Jeannie and her husband, Mike, are the proud parents of four wild and awesome boys.