“For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Salinger’s iconic character Holden Caulfield, though riddled with problems of his own, aspires if anything and at his best to be a catcher in the rye, saving children from going over a cliff—a metaphor for adulthood or, perhaps better, loss of innocence. He saw plenty of aspects of adulthood that scared him or turned him off, and if possible he wanted to spare children from such a fate. Of course we can do no such thing; time marches on, life invariably unfolds, and children turn into adults. But there remains, at least within me, something wistful when I recollect the past—my own childhood and that of others.

I remember the scene as a suspended moment of unalloyed joy, and, in my childhood naivety, imagined that it would never change.

There’s something about childhood, for many of us I imagine, that’s magical and sad to leave behind. Recently I read an article about C. S. Lewis in which the writer suggested that part of Lewis’s enduring appeal is that he never lost his wide-eyed wonder and playful childlikeness in his work. It made his eyes twinkle and the Oxford don’s writing dance and sing. I suspect that’s right. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” This makes me sad indeed, though, when childhood has to be left behind and downright tragic when childhood isn’t what it was meant to be in the first place.

When I was about twelve or thirteen, my family — for the last time, as it turned out — celebrated Christmas together. It was a paradigmatic Christmas morning, a magical time with my parents and all six kids gathering around the tree at the foot of our stairs. We read the Christmas story, and my dad handed out presents. I remember the scene as a suspended moment of unalloyed joy, and, in my childhood naivety, imagined that it would never change. It was all I knew up until then, and I had every expectation that life would always be this way.

But not long afterward, my oldest sister moved out, another got married, a brother went into the Navy. I waited in vain for a Christmas morning where we were all present again. It never happened. The next and last time we were all in one place again I was twenty-seven, and my dad was on his deathbed at the hospital. I still lived in Detroit at the time, and celebrated Christmas with my mom and one brother for a few years following. But it wasn’t the same. So much of the magic seemed gone, our family irremediably broken and scattered, and an air of sadness permeated the house despite our best efforts to project cheer.

Then something happened. My oldest sister, who had lived in California for twenty years, moved back to the area with her husband and son, and we began a new tradition. On Christmas Eve, she would come over, and bring her boy Noah. My friend Cathy would join the celebration and bring her daughter Hanna. Noah and Hanna were both six or seven. And all of a sudden, Christmas was magical again for a few years. Christmas, as C. S. Lewis says in Shadowlands, makes much more sense with children around. I couldn’t exactly experience it with the eyes of a child, as I no longer was one, but I could see it through their eyes. I could see their unadulterated joy, their excitement over the get-together, their innocence and playfulness.

I knew, watching those kids, that these were the moments they would treasure as adults — that, once they’d grown up and left their childhood behind, they would hold in their hearts as cherished memories to pass on to their own children. I then realized that the magic hadn’t ended with the loss of my dad, but that instead the story was continuing to be told. New memories were being made. It felt like those kids gave me Christmas back.

But five years ago, two weeks before Christmas, Noah’s mom, my sister Sharon, died suddenly at the age of fifty-three. My first thought went to Noah, and what this time of year would now mean to him. How I would have liked to spare him so excruciating a loss if I could have — to be a catcher in the rye for his benefit. But the call came, she was gone, Noah had lost his mother, and Christmas, again, would never be the same. I imagine in ways his childhood came to an abrupt halt that day when it collided with the brutality that life sometimes delivers. I fear that, for him, Christmas now too feels permeated with sadness and grief, and maybe it always will — at least perhaps until one day he has a child of his own and the magic returns and he can see the world again through the eyes of an innocent child exuberant over life’s little celebrations, family gatherings, and a brightly lit Christmas tree.

In “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis writes that nostalgic memories such as these are ultimately more about the future than about the past:

These things–the beauty, the memory of our past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not [yet] visited.

As a Christian I’m deeply grateful for the One whose coming we celebrate at Christmas, who delivered to death a decisive death blow, and who gives us hope even in the face of the worst life can dish out—who can restore to us the eyes of a child and remind us in this season of celebration that ours can be a hope that does not disappoint . . . and that the best is not in the past, but still to come. That the tragedy of lost childhoods can be redeemed and the wistfulness we sometimes feel over the past is an intimation and foretaste of a future of healing and joy and restoration.

David Baggett is Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary, Executive Editor at MoralApologetics.com, and co-author with Jerry Walls of Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality.