One memorable Christmas morning we woke up about 4: am and decided to investigate. (I was about 9, Tommy was 7.) We didn't want to wake anyone for permission (that would disturb the quiet of the house, and we were nothing if not considerate.)
We stepped into a magic world, with new bikes lined up ceremoniously, a toy sewing machine, and a beautiful Bride Doll inside a pink trunk that held a wardrobe made by Mrs. Claus. I don't know what Tommy had discovered, but we went to town ripping open our presents, and tearing into those of our sisters, as well. We even started to play with them. Unfortunately I broke the sewing machine on my first try. "What does i-n-s-t-r-u-c-t-i-o-n-s spell?" We didn't know.
Suddenly a Scrooge-like version of our dad appeared, rumpled hair askew, peering through his glasses at the presents we had opened, the pieces of our sister's special gifts that were already scattered on the floor, and in a very un-Christmas-y way, ordered us back to bed. Mom came down, and we heard them cleaning up the mess we had made as we celebrated the big day without the family.
Apparently they had an "agenda." It did not include a midnight gift exchange of their greediest kids. I really don't remember anything else about that day, if we were in trouble or what happened. But it demonstrated to me the lengths kids will go to, to spoil a very well-planned Christmas morning family celebration.
As parents, we did what we could to keep the party on our time table. It was the beginnings of the secret.
We decreed that Christmas morning started at 6:30 am, never earlier. The kids had to stay in their rooms til we called them out. (We eventually pushed it back to 7:am and even later.) One year we tried having a little devotional in our bedroom before we pounced on the presents, to remember Jesus and the Christmas Story. We weren't able to keep any body's attention, and we just gave up. Christmas Eve was our time for worship, and Christmas Morning was a wild, secular free-for-all.
Preamble to the secret.: We allowed a sleepover in one or two bedrooms on Christmas Eve, so the kids were all together when they woke up. They could go to the bathroom, but other than that, they had to stay in the bedrooms, wildly anticipating, dreaming, recounting what they'd overheard happening on the rooftop that night, and keeping mum about what they were giving each other.
The Secret: Santa left their filled Christmas Stockings in their rooms. They could open them while they were waiting for the main event. Here are a few things they'd find inside:
- Boxed drink
- Small boxed cereal to be eaten dry (Alpha Bits, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, etc.)
- Granola Bar
- Clementine oranges, already peeled and sectioned, in baggies, ready to pop in your mouth
- Raisins or Peanuts
- Pepperoni slices or peanut butter and crackers.
Each stocking contained a small game they could play together: Old Maid, travel checkers, little dollar type prizes (like 3 crayons in a box with a miniature coloring book, or sticker book)--just something new that could calm the hyper Christmas spirit. A comic book, joke book, simple magic tricks, cat's cradle, Rubic's cube: these took the pressure off until show time.
One year I made a list of instructions which was posted on the back of their door. They were supposed to generally make themselves presentable for pictures. Nothing big, just brush their teeth and their hair (actually, that was pretty big back in those years!) Wipe their nose. Go to the potty, change any damp underwear or jammies, and wipe off last night's dried cocoa mustache. Depending on ages, they alone were responsible or they were assigned a partner to help in these private preparations.
Then Dee and I would put some Cinnamon rolls in the oven, start the hot chocolate, put on some music and gather the kids on the stairs. We tried to at least mention the real reason for Christmas (the flannel board presentation got eliminated early on), had a family prayer and sent them into the living room to oo-ooh and ahh-h-h.
Their Santa presents (usually 3--a toy, some clothes, a book) were grouped separately on an individual chair, or corner of the couch, and they had a few minutes to look their pile over before the unwrapping began. One of the kids was designated Santa. He dug under the tree and presented the gifts everybody had prepared for each other. Only one present was opened at a time, so we could all watch the reaction of the giver and the receiver. The giftee had to pay attention to the gift, and there were reminders to say thanks and you're welcome at appropriate times.
Some memorable presents I opened over the years: Make-up foundation in a color needed by a black woman (I'm as white as a sheet of paper.) Pictures of the kids glued into canning jar lids, orange juice cans covered with construction paper and decorated as a pencil holder, or a hand print make from plaster of paris. Their joy in giving us their offerings taught me that they did want to be unselfish and kind if they were given a chance.
We tried to drag the unwrapping process out, and as the kids got older, they even suggested "Let's take a break for breakfast," hoping to make the fun take more time.
After the opening ritual was over, and breakfast was cleaned up, creating displays became the main activity. The kids would (kind of automatically) clean up their rooms and ceremoniously carry in their new stuff to set up a display of their gifts on the bed. It was an art project in itself, with over-lapping, stacking, layering and arranging, to put each item in it's best light.
Then they would put on any new, or in some cases "newish" clothes for the expected guests. Grama and Grampa, and Aunt Marie always came; the Great-grandparents even came for a few years. Some little friend who could escape his own extravaganza would sometimes ring the doorbell, and they'd immediately disappear to the nether-regions of the Display.
I truly credit The secret of the Christmas Stockings in the bedroom, (giving them a friendly little built-in party of their own) for making our Christmas mornings manageable. At least no unruly kids ever held Christmas without us!
Good luck with your own planning. Remember, the parents are in charge. Right up until the moment the kids wake up.