Spoiler alert: there’s a lot of cereal in this pile of gifts from Christmas Past.
We don’t follow any “gift rules” in our house. I know lots of parents love the three-presents plan, symbolizing gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the biblical Christmas story. I know other families who are fans of the rhyming four-gifts rule: give kids something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.
I’m so glad these plans work for so many families. They make all kinds of sense.
We don’t follow any gift rules
But one of my absolute favorite childhood memories of Christmas morning is my brother and sister and me racing down the hallway from our parents’ bedroom, where we’d been sequestered while they got the house ready (just like the mom in A Christmas Story…”wait for Christmas to start!”).
Once the fire was burning and my parents’ coffee was brewed, they’d call, “Okay!” and we’d tear down the hallway, come to a screeching halt just shy of the living room, and peak around the corner to gaze at The Pile.
My parents didn’t put many gifts out under the tree ahead of Christmas morning, so the growth of The Pile from when we’d last seen it late Christmas Eve night was always a thrill. The Pile inevitably spilled out from under the tree and took up part of the living room. Some large items would be propped against the stair railing. It was a glorious site to behold.
My favorite Christmas memory was the time we spent opening gifts
It wasn’t that every (or even any) gift was a big-ticket item, not by any stretch. My siblings and I knew this. But my parents wrapped everything that could possibly be construed as a gift, and if something had more than one part, each part was wrapped separately. Because of this—and because we took turns opening gifts and exclaiming over what each other got and reading package information and modeling clothing items (of which there weren’t many)—Christmas morning stretched on for several hours. That’s also one of my fond recollections…how long and languid it was.
Those Christmas mornings are some of my happiest childhood memories, and I have a lot of happy memories to choose from. This one is not the okayest of the bad but one of the best of the good, so I’ve always wanted to recreate it for my children.
And I still do. Old as they are, I still love to watch my big kids’ eyes light up when they come around the corner into the living room on Christmas morning and see how The Pile has grown under our tree overnight.
My teens “need” nothing
My teen and young adult need absolutely nothing. The older they get, the less the things they want are things we can or should get for them. (“Ooh, yay! It’s a job in your field WITH DENTAL INSURANCE after graduation!”)
So I wrap up their favorite cereals and cute pens and fancy hot chocolate and fuzzy socks with the little non-skid dots on the bottom and gourmet brownie mixes in adorable cast iron mini skillets and lots of things that could be considered “stocking stuffers.” (The stockings, meanwhile, get razors and hair ties and gum and, this year—thank you, coronavirus—face masks. NOT, however, a gift certificate for a $70 yearbook as was once suggested by our local high school yearbook sales committee, bless them.)
I wrap everything, and we take our time unwrapping
I mix all the pile fillers in with a few bigger items from my kids’ Amazon-linked lists and call it a Christmas morning. We take our time unwrapping and examining and telling back stories (“It was marked $20, but when I got up to the register, it rang up at $7.99!!!) just like my family of origin did. (It should be noted that families the world over can generally be divided into “take turns” and “everybody tear in all at once” gift-opening camps.)
I would say the present pile isn’t about reinforcing excess, but maybe it is. Maybe it’s about reinforcing an excess of time together and tradition and laughter and memories. Of course, this is what we’re all trying to reinforce. This is the preeminent rule of love.
Other than that, the best rule we can follow is to do whatever works for our actual families to make the holiday season a memory our kids will want to revisit years down the road when they’re doing Christmas in homes of their own.
As for me and my house, I’ve got cereal to wrap.