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."
"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:
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.
Whether it's tinsel shimmering on a tree or candles flickering on a menorah or Kwanza kinara, the glow and twinkle of holiday decorations can mesmerize any child.
Then there's the novelty factor. Kids are hyperalert to anything new in their environment. (Just try rearranging the furniture or buying a different breakfast cereal.) The day a wreath appears on your door or lights blink on city streets is downright magical. In Joanne Hovis's Bethesda, Maryland, home, her family's large collection of menorahs becomes the focal point. "The kids love looking at each one and hearing where it came from," she says. "Then we each pick one to light every night—though we do steer the kids to the sturdiest ones!"
The Christmas setup at our house ranks almost as high on the excite-o-meter in our family as the holy day itself. My husband and the kids go to pick out the most perfect tree on the lot (or, sometimes, chop a fresh one). Then we unwrap a family history's worth of ornaments and arrange the Nativity-set figurines while we sip hot chocolate and vote whether to top this year's tree with an angel or a star.
When my son Henry was 3, I decided he was ready to tackle the ritual of baking Christmas cookies. We mixed the dough, rolled it out, and brandished flour-dipped cookie cutters to make stars and snowmen.
"What are you making?" Daddy asked as red and green jimmies were being rather liberally sprinkled over the buttercream icing. "We are making a big mess!" Henry answered with glee.
You can bet we've made a big mess every year since.
Almost every family has some special dish that's only bought or bothered with once a year, thus making it something to savor. For Heather Harris's family in Northbrook, Illinois, it's all about the Hanukkah latkes, the traditional potato pancakes. The men in her family (her dad and, starting last year, her husband) are the chefs, and everyone, down to her daughter, Elle, now 2, enjoys their handiwork.
Having a family ritual gives a special rhythm to the seasons. For Janai Nelson, the Brooklyn mom of Kimathi, 2, and Nandi, 3 months, who hosts a big Kwanza celebration, they're a way of making the seven principles of the holiday real to the kids (not to mention the grown-ups). One way her family shows its support for the community is to acknowledge the oldest and youngest guests present. Last year, Kimathi was the baby; this year, he'll join the others in welcoming his new sibling.
Every year since they were born, Meredith and Miles Rickey, ages 4 and 2, have received new holiday pajamas from Santa's elves just before the big day. Last year, the doorbell rang Christmas Eve and there they were, in gift bags on their Russellville, Ohio, front porch. "This gives them something to look forward to, and they think it's just fabulous," says their mom, Melissa. "Plus, it helps the Christmas-morning pictures look festive—except we still have messy hair!"
For starting a tradition of your own, anything fun can be fodder: You can try creating your own gift themes for each night of Hanukkah, collecting food for charity, ice skating with bells on, or building a snowman. You'll be surprised how little things are remembered and re-created by your kids, and how new traditions develop a life of their own as the years go by.
The wrapping paper!
It's true: The littlest gift recipients don't care much about what's inside; they'd rather have the wrapping. Holiday paper tends to be shiny and colorful. It makes interesting noises. Boxes have lids to take off and replace.
When my daughter, Page, was 16 months old, I briefly lost track of her in the Christmas-morning ruckus. A quick "stop everything" search turned her up under a side table, happily sitting in a sea of wrapping paper and wadding and then tossing piece after piece with maniacal delight.
Amy Brown learned the unbeatable lure of packaging last year when she surprised her daughter, Tiffany, 3, with a grand gesture: a toy BMW to ride in. "But when her grandfather showed her that she could turn the box that the car came in into a spaceship, forget it," says Brown who lives in New York City. "She played with the spaceship, danced around the room inside the box, and even wanted to sleep in it—and forgot all about the car."
Kids love any noise, of course—so don't overlook the joyful kind. In the olden days, before iPods brought every song in the universe to your fingertips on demand, my dad used to tune in to a local station that played Christmas classics the entire week before the holiday. It became the sound track of the season for us.
So teach your child the same Yiddish songs that you learned as a kid. Or let your budding ballerina pirouette around the kitchen to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Or all go caroling together.
Granted, a 9-month-old in the throes of stranger anxiety may not welcome the parade of unfamiliar faces that the holiday brings. But for older kids, gathering together with friends and family is often a treat, especially when so many loved ones live clear across the country (or lead really busy lives just across town). Leslie Stallings, a mom of two in Clearwater, Florida, hosts a Hanukkah bash for dozens of people every year, and her two boys love not only the party atmosphere but taking part in creating the guest list. "They really think about whom they want to share their holiday with," she says. "Most of our relatives live far away, but we're still able to create that sense of family."
We tell or read our children stories all year round. But the holidays are especially rich with messages that teach and entertain. The story of Baby Jesus is the reason for the Christmas season, after all, as the story of the Maccabees explains Hanukkah, and the seven principles give meaning to Kwanza. There's no shortage of wonderful tales to be told at this time of year, whether you choose these or the more secular exploits of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, or Frosty the Snowman.
Or make up your own. My godmother used to arrive at our family's Christmas Eve gathering sharing news bulletins she'd heard about Santa's sleigh having been spotted in the sky. She'd looked up herself as she drove over, she would say, and indeed she saw a little red dot in the sky, Rudolph's nose. Throughout the evening she'd give us updates—the sleigh had been spotted over China, then Hawaii, now California. Since she was not normally one to pull your leg, I took these reports very seriously. If Auntie Helen saw Rudolph on his way, then it must be true!
Madeleine Monnot was 6 last year when she read The Polar Express and saw the movie. In the story, a boy receives a sleigh bell from Santa Claus, which he can hear ring as long as he still believes. "After that, she told me she wanted one of Santa's sleigh bells for Christmas," says her mom, Tonya, of Westerville, Ohio. "It was the only thing she wanted and asked for."
Sure enough, Santa came through on Christmas morning, leaving Madeleine a beautiful silver bell, along with a special note. "She was overjoyed and truly touched," says Monnot. "She is so proud that she can hear that bell ring because 'she believes.' As a mom, I hope that never changes."
Kids know what it's really all about.