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Why Kids Love Holidays

I know it's not about the gifts. Yet every year I make the same holiday parenting blooper. I fixate on The List, my careful who-gets-what plan designed to wind up in a Santa-worthy display that will make each of my children's eyes shine with amazement and delight on Christmas morning.

Silly me. Little kids, I'm reminded time and again, are much easier to please.

"What did you like the best about Christmas?" I remember asking my daughter, Eleanor, when she was 3.

"I liked the carrots we left for the reindeer."

"What else?"

"And the tree."

"And the presents?" I finally couldn't help prompting.

"Yeah! And the snow!"

It's not that children don't love packages and bows. (Oh, they do!) Or that toys aren't a wonderful part of the season. (Oh, they are!) But gifts are only one dimension of holiday spirit, no matter which holiday you celebrate. And small children, with their open minds and hearts, are perhaps more attuned to this reality than anyone else. There are many things they love about the season that can't be found in the toy aisle. So when you're thinking about how to make your holiday memories special this year, keep in mind these perennial kid pleasers:

The anticipation!

Anybody who's ever heard a gaggle of preschoolers shout a countdown—"Five! Four! Three! Two! One!"—knows that the buildup is as exciting as the blastoff. Children live in the moment. And if the moment is full of happy excitement, that's good enough for them. Before age 5 or so, kids don't really remember much about the previous Christmas to even be sure exactly what they're looking forward to. But does that stop them from eagerly awaiting the holiday? Hardly. The thrill of what's to come is why such time-honored traditions as writing a letter to Santa give so much pleasure to a child. Suzanne Weerts builds her kids' festive mood by letting them open a present each day in December. No, she's not insane. The "gifts" are the 25 Christmas books and videos that they already own. "Each year I wrap up Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, and the rest—including all four versions of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," says the Burbank, California, mom of Maddie, 7, and Jack, 5. "The kids take turns each morning opening one of their packages. This tradition guarantees that by season's end, we have read and watched everything in our collection." Bonus: They spend a guaranteed half hour or more of family time every day during the busiest part of the year.