When I think back to childhood Christmases, my best memories have nothing to do with the presents I received and everything to do with the experiences I shared with my family in the days leading up to December 25th.
The list of activities on Christmas Eve day alone was enough to send me into fits of spine-tingling glee, tempered only by a reckless launch into a snowbank or a spirited jump on the bed. The sheer sensorial overload of it all kept my brothers and me awake for hours, as still as our sugar-infused bodies would allow, straining our ears for the sound of bells.
Christmas morning held all the allure of a mountain summit in the distance just catching the first light of day. We gazed at it for weeks as if in a trance, dreaming of all the secret delights it held in store.
Such anticipation gives everything else a certain luster, a heightened tremor of possibility. All that possibility had us searching avidly for elf footprints in the snow, and feeling certain that any rabbit or fox tracks we found were actually elf prints in disguise.
Anticipation is what made our search for the perfect Christmas tree a day-long affair that involved trekking through knee-deep snow on Jack George’s farm with a saw and a scrap of cardboard, shouting into the wind at one another: “Here’s a nice one!” “Ooh! Look at this one over here!” “I found a beauty! Tall and full!” Once home, our 13-foot trees (the tops of which poked up over the balcony where I slept) took that evening and much of the next day to trim.
On Christmas Eve, we pushed anticipation to the hilt as, one by one, we presented our gifts to each other. We weren’t allowed to open them, but we could take all the time we liked wondering at what might lay inside. It became a sort of competition to see who could come up with the most misleading gift enclosures.
On Christmas morning as we clambered onto our parents’ bed, they’d pretend to snore and, upon “waking,” grumble about taking long, slow showers or cleaning the toilets before the unwrapping could begin. A few more stalling antics later and we’d finally feel our way down the stairs, eyes closed the whole time, and wait at the mouth of the living room, its warm glow seeping through our eyelids, until Dad finally exclaimed, “Open!”
The gifts? Some of them fun, many of them to read, most of them useful – things we needed or other people thought we should have. But the buildup, the excitement, gave the holiday its sparkle.
In light of that Rockwellian account, here are 12 ideas for how to enhance the magic of your holiday and cut back on the influx of material crap:
Count down the days
You can do this in any number of ways. The Advent Calendar is a classic. Creative twists on that idea are also fun: Empty 25 walnut shells, number them, and hide a little something under each one. Have your kids take turns as they discover the miniature riches beneath each.
The “riches” can be symbolic or just plain silly. The simple act of discovery is what we’re after here.
Get creative with your holiday greeting
Friends of ours realized they had enough offspring for a starting basketball lineup: five boys. So they wrote and performed a rap song with a verse for each member of the family, and then recorded themselves performing it on a basketball court.
It’s hilarious, totally memorable, and no doubt made for a lot of fun in the process.
Make a movie
I’m not sure how it started, but the grown-ups in my family got it into our heads that it’d be fun to make a movie over the Christmas holiday starring all our kids. So, in between meals and gifts and walks and naps, we made armor out of cardboard scraps and wrote a script called “The Vengeance of Prince LeBleu.”
The kids got so into it that the storyline evolved, and we continued shooting for a few consecutive holidays, coming up with characters for every member of the family. Was it crazy and totally unwieldy? Yes. Did it make us laugh hysterically? Most definitely. Are we now armed with the most adorable footage with which to embarrass our children on their wedding days? Absolutely.
Make food together
Christmas cookies, especially that irresistible recipe from your grandmother. Or bread, because the smell of it baking is that good. Or a gingerbread house if you crafty folks just can’t help yourselves.
Whatever you make, get your kids involved from start to finish, and make enough so you can give some away. Nothing says “I like you” like a fresh-baked delight delivered by hand.
Take in performance art
Plays, ballets, Messiah sing-alongs, and candlelight masses abound this time of year. Pick something you’ve never experienced before – or pick the same something you’ve done a hundred times – and bring your kids along.
Even if they complain initially, that music and those costumes and the tock of toe shoes cueing the fake snow to fall from the rafters will find its way into their subconscious.
Ski. Snowboard. Sled. Skate. Take winter hikes into Narnian woodlands. Do whatever outdoor winter thing you enjoy as a family.
Do it until noses turn red and mittens are encrusted with chunks of ice and someone gets a snowball shoved down her neck. Nothing a little cocoa by the woodstove can’t cure.
Build something together
Snowmen and snow forts and sledding jumps are obvious (and very awesome) options. But when winter doesn’t deliver, makeshift lean-tos work, too. And they serve as great bases for epic snowball fights when the weather finally decides to cooperate.
If you have poor circulation and would rather keep all your extremities, see options 1 through 5.
Every family’s got them. This is a great time of year to recollect that time Aunt Susan – ever the festive house guest – decided to wrap herself in Christmas tree lights, plug herself in, and declare herself Spirit of Christmas Present.
You may or may not decide to include the part about how, at age 11, it became your job to deliver her Martinis so she wouldn’t have to abandon her post by the wall socket in the living room. Either way, stories like these enrich your children’s sense of a shared family history.
Don’t love reliving the past? Write your own holiday adventure/mishap/whodunnit. Challenge your kids to do the same.
Or write a family letter to Santa saying thanks in advance, with suggestions – perhaps one per family member – about some other ways he might apply his wondrous feats of giving.
To simplify, ask your kids to fill in the blank: “If Santa could solve any problem in the world, I think he should ________.”
Create a scavenger hunt
It can be a one-dimensional indoor affair to stave off the stir-crazies, or a staged, multi-day wild goose chase stretching across whole neighborhoods and involving clues and limericks and store clerks and wanted ads in the local paper.
Primarily though, it’s yet another way of exhibiting for your kids a different kind of “giving” – and for your spouse, a creative kind of love.
For St. Nick, the reindeer, the Food Shelf, the Mitten Tree, your neighbors, your public radio station, the birds, the lost dog you heard howling the other night.
Leave little things around for each other, too, like chocolates in lunch boxes or notes in door jambs. Leave elf-like footprints in the snow just below your four-year-old’s window.
Do something, anything, you’ve never done before as a family
Draw a wild card this year. Who knows? It may become a tradition.