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Keeping Kids Busy on Christmas

In my extended family (my three siblings and I have nine kids between us, with a 12-year gap from the oldest to youngest), Christmas afternoon at my mother’s house was always a challenge, particularly when most of the kids were small. After the presents were unwrapped, there was always a bit of a letdown, which led to major crankiness (and not just from the kids!). They were bored and whiny. (“How can you be bored!” we’d grouse. “You have all this new stuff to play with!”) It was tough to find something that they’d all enjoy doing—not to mention that we grown-ups really just wanted to sit, or even nap!

One year, at the tail end of the present-opening, my brilliant sister-in-law Mary, an artist, gave each of the kids a box to open. Inside each was a small wooden dragon marionette with movable wings and a many-jointed tail. “OOOOOOOOH,” they all said. She then led them down to the basement, where she’d spread out newspapers across my mother’s ping pong table and set up a painting station for each of them. There the cousins sat for the longest time—from the oldest, Daniel, then 15, to Ellie, then 3—jabbering, laughing, and carefully painting their dragons with glitter paint under Mary’s guidance, gluing on googly eyes and feathers and jewels. This was her gift to them—not only a cool marionette they’d designed themselves, but a memory of a terrific Christmas afternoon that, eight years later, all but the very youngest still remember. It was a wonderful present.

Mary died two years later, at age 46. I like to think of her on that day, untangling marionette strings, patiently showing the kids how to blend colors and glue on sequins to look like scales. Merry Christmas, Mary!