On the day after Christmas last year, my 4-year-old, Kate, woke up and started searching under the tree for the one present she might have missed. There was nothing there, but that didn't stop her. She simply wasn't ready for the holidays to be over. All day long, she'd pitifully inquire about exactly when Santa would come again, my answer clearly never the one she'd wanted.
As Kate examined the barren space beneath the tree and looked for the stockings I had already taken down, I felt pure joy. Joy over the fridge full of leftovers (no cooking for a few days), the houseguests all gone, and my shopping, wrapping, and entertaining behind me. Life suddenly felt wonderfully uncomplicated. The truth is, I felt like my holiday was just beginning.
But while many a mom might be excited to get on with the new year and leave the stress and to-dos of Christmas behind, a child's desire to savor one more moment of gift giving, celebrating, and family togetherness can be a challenge. That's why the key to enjoying the day after (and the ones after that) is to have some interesting new activities at the ready that'll keep the troops from crashing and burning after their holiday high. To make the 26th of December special in its own way:
1. Read together Read your child's favorite holiday books to him one last time next to the tree or by the fire, boxing them up as you finish each one.
2. Make it "Dog Day" Odds are that your four-legged pal's been without a walk or much attention all week. Declare that the 26th is Canine Christmas, and have a pooch party. Make some dog decorations with markers or crayons and construction paper and hang them around the house. Spruce up your pet with a few holiday ribbons and bows. Wrap up dog treats in small packages, and let him sniff his presents before you open them with him. Serve doggy bones on holiday paper plates. When you're done, take him on a long walk.
3. Pull out the presents Have your kids line up all (or some) of the new toys on the floor or on a table and spend the morning examining and playing with each one. The two-for-one bonus: You can take photos of your children with each toy or book that was sent from family or friends who weren't around on the holiday. Then, when you print out or develop the pictures, jot down what your child loves most about the present on the back of the photo, and slip it in an envelope to mail for a quick and easy personalized thank-you note.
Barbara Rowley, a mother of two in Big Sky, Montana, is halfway through writing a novel about motherhood.
"Avoid Post-Holiday Letdown"
4. Clean out the fridge of all those soon-to-spoil seasonal treats, and help your friends do the same by hosting a potluck. Toss everything on pretty platters, serve it on paper plates (so there's less work for you later), and settle in to compare your holiday stories.
Can't handle any more entertaining right now? Divide up the cookies and what's left of your famous ham on individual plates, then go with the children to deliver a surprise meal to an elderly neighbor or a friend who's just had a baby.
5. Leave the house Need some exercise after days of eggnog and homemade fudge? Take a family trip to your local zoo (surely deserted on this big shopping day) for fresh air, a brisk walk, and an energizing change of scene. Or go for a long hike in the park.
6. Be crafty Set aside ribbon, scraps of colorful wrapping paper, and a few cardboard boxes from the actual holiday, and make today "Invention Art Day." Let your toddler or preschooler tape and tie ribbons and boxes together into designs and constructions of his own imagination—while you kick back and watch him play.
7. Start a project Pull out the birdhouse or jewelry kit your child received. Why wait? Now you won't have to find a place to store the bulky boxes these kits usually come in.
8. Sort through your holiday cards and reread them together. Have your child put envelopes into one pile, cards into another, and photographs into a third. While you jot down addresses from the envelopes so you'll have them handy for next year, she can choose her favorite cards to show you.
When you're done, let her cut out images from them to store with your holiday decorations for next year's craft projects, or cut them into rectangles to use as gift tags next Christmas. Another option: With the photos of friends and family that you've received, compile a simple people-we-love book with your child, so that she can remember the faces and names of friends she may not see often.
9. Set aside old toys and gifts for charity As you find spots for the new items that you or your child have received, make a box for giveaways, and select some to donate to a good cause. If he's old enough, let your child help pick the organization.
10. Declare a day of rest—for you and your child. Eat leftovers. Look through photo albums. Snooze. Better yet, let your child pull out a sleeping bag and camp out in the living room with you to watch his favorite movies back to back (while you take a nap!).
11. Go on a backyard icicle hunt When your child spots fantastic creations, gently break them off (wearing gloves, and taking care to stay out of the way if one should fall), and put them in a plastic bag. Find a place in the yard for your icicle display, and stick each one upright in the snow or in a planter that's filled with sand. You can keep adding to your collection throughout the season.
12. Connect with a friend If your child naps, forget about the laundry and postholiday cleanup today, and call or e-mail a good pal or family member you won't get to see over the holidays.
Make the Spirit Last
13. Create a holiday scrapbook Collect that very special card from your child's great-grandmother, his first letter to Santa, and his cool drawing of the North Pole, and put them in a book devoted exclusively to the holidays to take out and add to every year. You might also write down his first words on Christmas morning, his favorite holiday songs and movies, or his best present ever from Santa. Let him draw a picture of (or help you write about) some of his favorite Christmas memories, too.
14. Light up your child's favorite space Drape a strand of tree lights in her room, fort, or playroom as a very cool decoration.
15. Call it a cat's Christmas The leftover wrapping from the holidays makes fantastic cat toys. Show your child how to string jingle bells on a piece of ribbon, and then dangle them around for your kitty to chase and bat. (Just be careful she doesn't ingest any part of it!) Bows, tied together into balls, also make the perfect cat toy. And watching her jump and pounce is laugh-out-loud entertainment for you and your kids.
16. Kick off a countdown to summer Declare to your kids that it isn't the end of Christmas, it's actually just 178 short days until they will be able to wear their bathing suits and stay up late into the evening catching lightning bugs in the backyard. Celebrate with an ice cream cone in classic holiday colors: Care for a scoop of pistachio or strawberry, anyone?
17. Start a new tradition Designate the 26th as the day your family always goes ice-skating or sits around the fire singing carols, or takes a drive through your neighborhood to ooh and aah at all the beautiful lights and decorations. The truth is, with the pressure of holiday preparations behind you, you might enjoy it a lot more than if you did it before Christmas.
18. Record milestones Year's end is a nice time to write down facts about your child's development. Fill in her baby book with info about her height and weight and quirks. Jot down little milestones, too, like when she first threw a ball or said a certain adorable phrase.
It's also a great time to reflect on what the year has meant to you and your family, since chances are you haven't been able to keep up that wonderful daily mother's journal that you'd planned!
19. Light up a room Have a candlelit dinner—or a candlelit snack—with your kids. A simple votive or two makes even leftovers more festive.
20. Take inventory Look over the presents you and your family received and get each item ready to use right away. Put batteries in toys and appliances. Take action figures and Barbie dolls out of difficult-to-open packaging. Find storage for multipiece toys (such as block sets, trains, and dolls) so that parts won't get lost.
21. Donate duplicates Can't handle the hassle of returning or exchanging duplicate gifts? Instead of rushing from store to store on this busy day, take your children to the nearest collection box for a local charity and leave the presents there. Explain to your kids that your special delivery will go to needy people who will be grateful for your regifting.
22. Play, play, play Sometimes children don't know what to do with the new toys they've received, and they need some coaching or help with the directions. Construct connecting buildings with the blocks that your child may have gotten. Play Sorry! with him if he got the board game, explaining the rules. Read the first chapter of a new book to him to get him started on it.
23. Call your mom Thank her for everything she did for you during the holidays when you were a child. Why? Because now you actually understand exactly what you're thanking her for.