In spite of our parent’s suggestions to plan a different date, my wife and I were married three days before Christmas. While planning and holding a wedding so close to Christmas was a difficult feat, it provided a ready-made opportunity for me to start new Christmas traditions. On the morning of the 23rd, we set off on our honeymoon—with a miniature Christmas tree secretly hidden away—where we spent the first week of our marriage, just the two of us. Which meant that we also spent Christmas morning by ourselves. But the real tradition that started on our honeymoon was eating out on Christmas Eve morning, a tradition that has been carried on for over 30 years with only one exception. While this was the first Christmas tradition that started shortly after our wedding, it was once we had children that the Christmas traditions really took off.
Motivated by the knowledge that I had no memories of believing in Santa, I wanted to make sure Christmas was a magical experience for our kids—and my wife was a ready mate to help with the details.
The traditions started the year our first child was born. To commemorate his first Christmas, we bought a “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament—a tradition that carried over to our other two children. Each of our three children now has his/her own for the year of their birth and it is these ornaments each year that I carefully place in a prominent place on the tree.
When our children got older, they would accompany me to pick out the live tree and bring it home for decorating together.
Since we knew it wouldn’t be filled with presents until Christmas morning, its tree skirt would be bare until Christmas morning. When our children were very small, we would help them unwrap their presents only to be surprised sometimes that they wanted to play more with the paper than the present inside. So one year, we decided to leave all of the presents unwrapped and fully assembled around the tree, just like you often see in Christmas pictures. Big mistake. The children came in and were overwhelmed. And rather than playing with their own toys since they had no way of knowing which belonged to whom, they gravitated to each other’s. But the greatest realization was that with everything unwrapped; the Christmas surprise came and went with one large pop. It was over before we recognized the stunned looks on our children’s faces. So from then on, presents were wrapped so the Christmas morning magic could last longer.
Each year before we put the kids to bed on Christmas Eve, my wife and the children would put out milk and cookies for Santa to find when he visited our home. (One year our son suggested leaving out a beer instead of milk—certainly Santa would enjoy that!) And once they were asleep, I would wrap presents while my wife filled out the nametags attached to the present always writing “From Santa” on the tag. In our first home which didn’t have a chimney, I can’t recall them ever asking how Santa got in our house, but I was ready with an answer that we left the door open for him if need be, a white lie I was more than willing to share to preserve our children’s innocence.
So when we bought our second home, we made sure it had a chimney. And I cannot describe the shear joy I experienced when our oldest son bounded into our room on Christmas morning exclaiming he had heard the “prancing and pawing of each little hoof” on the roof above his room. I don’t know if he remembers this since at the time he was either five or six years old but it is a memory I have cherished for over 25 years.
Then one year, one of the older children thought the handwriting on the nametags looked a lot like their mother’s own handwriting. I don’t recall how we talked our way out of that one but it was probably the first chink in Santa’s old silver bell of their belief. A new method was needed and since scientists are known for solving problems, I came up with a new solution.
I was certainly never going to make the same mistake my mother made by not putting nametags on presents and trying to remember by size and shape alone which present belonged to which child. So the next year, I came up with the idea of each child having his or her own unique wrapping paper. And it couldn’t be any wrapping paper that they had seen around the house or that had been used in a Christmas past, it had to be brand new wrapping paper hidden away until it was pulled out on Christmas Eve for wrapping.
So one of my annual traditions became picking out a special paper each year for our three children. But how did they know which paper was theirs? Well Santa being the clever person he was would either leave a small sliver of the paper tucked inside their Christmas stocking or would leave a small white envelope containing a sliver of the three papers with just a single, block letter printed on them, the initial of their first name. If doubts had surfaced from recognizing their mother’s handwriting on the nametags, at least this method gave them some means to continue to believe.
So each Christmas morning, I would be the first one to go downstairs into the room with the Christmas tree to make sure Santa had come. And once this was confirmed, it would allow me to take the traditional Christmas morning shot of the kids on the stairs.
These traditions continued for many years until at some point our two oldest children figured out the truth about Santa. I have no recollection of how this came about, no doubt a memory I have blocked off in my mind hidden away right next to my own devastating memory of the loss of that innocence. We had to encourage the two of them to keep their knowledge secret from their little brother so he could continue to enjoy the belief until he questioned Santa’s existence on his own.
But it was the reading of a Christmas story to our youngest son one night before bed that brought my emotions about my own Christmas memories crashing down around me…