When you think of your childhood Christmases, what comes to mind?
For me, I remember waking my parents up well before the sun, then creeping down the hall to see if Santa came to our house. My parents always teased us and said no opening presents until they had at least one sip of coffee. My sister and I patiently sat on the couch, staring at our loot, waiting until they gave us the green light to dig in.
We opened stockings first, followed by the big stuff. We spent the morning at home, as a family of four, and visited my grandparents later on in the afternoon where we saw aunts, uncles and cousins. We indulged in cookies and desserts and had the obligatory bite of Slovakian food my grandmother had cooked. It was a typical, traditional, good old American Christmas every year.
My children’s Christmas mornings, however, have looked quite a bit different. Not bad, but different.
Like many modern families, my three kids do not have all of their extended family within a half hour drive of their house.
We live in Kansas. One set of grandparents live in Illinois, along with many of their cousins. Another set of cousins live in Texas. We value the opportunity to spend holidays with our extended family and very much want those memories for our kids.
So what does that mean? We travel. Every. Single. Year.
It also means for the first few years of our kids’ lives that we woke up in someone else’s house on Christmas morning. And although our Christmases weren’t the traditional kind we grew up with, they were special and memorable and our kids loved them.
Road trips and plane rides around the holidays were all they knew. Santa always found us wherever we were and delivered their gifts. Year after year, this was our normal.
Until one year we looked at our kids and realized how fast they were growing up. How fleeting those early childhood years were when they all believed in the magic of Santa. We asked ourselves, what are OUR family traditions? And we had a hard time answering that question.
So a couple of years ago we made a promise.
We would still travel to see family around the holidays—as being with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins is an important and valuable part of our children’s lives. However...we vowed to spend those first few hours of Christmas morning together as a family of five—as ONLY a family of five—no matter what.
For the past 15 years, we’ve alternated Christmases—one year with my family, one year with my husband’s. That first year we decided to begin our new tradition, we were set to spend the holiday with my in-laws. But rather than waking up in their home on the morning of the 25th, we packed up the kids, the suitcases and presents, and moved into a hotel on Christmas Eve. The logistics were tricky—how would we hide the presents in the car? Where would we put them without a tree? Would we have enough room?
In the end, with the help of a kind bellhop willing to hide our kids’ gifts until they were asleep, we made it work. We brought a small artificial tree with us and we surrounded it with presents. It was cozy, and it was perfect. Because when the kids woke us up at 5:03 a.m., they saw that Santa had found us. Again.
The news of our new “rule” was a bit awkward as it made its way through the family. I think some feelings were hurt, and a few relatives were confused as to why this was so important to us. Why go through the hassle of moving to a hotel for the night when there is a comfortable guest room at Grandma’s?
But in the end, when everyone thought about their own Christmas mornings, the memories made with their own families—just Mom, Dad and the kids—opening presents in their pjs, sipping coffee, throwing wrapping paper around, ooh-ing and aah-ing as they saw what Santa had brought, everyone understood.
Our oldest child is nine and sadly has figured out the truth. Being a helpful big brother, he keeps the magic of Santa alive for his siblings and helps them find our Elf on the Shelf every morning.
He may still wake us up at 5:03 a.m. this year, but he knows the new Legends of Zelda video game he’ll open was bought at Target by Mom and Dad. We still have a couple years left with my younger kids, but it’s passing by so darn fast.
It won’t be long before they sleep in, even on Christmas, and the pitter-patter of feet early that morning is a sound of the past. For that reason, we decided to grab a hold of these last few years of true childhood and preserve whatever traditions we can. Whatever memories we can.
We took Christmas morning, and we made it ours.