Our secular Christmas celebration features a complex schedule of shopping, decorating, shopping, dinners, shopping, parties, shopping, musical concerts and shopping, but it all leads to a special moment people around the world have come to anticipate: the opening of presents.
Some of our most cherished family traditions have been built around the opening of Christmas presents.
For years, at our house, when the children were young, the routine on Christmas Eve was to attend a Christmas Eve worship service early in the evening, and to spend about an hour driving around town looking at decorations. Then, we headed home for a light meal before the final holiday preparations were made and everyone settled down for the night.
When I was a child, my parents would let me and my sister open one — just one — of the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. On occasion, as a parent, I would offer my own children that option. But they showed much more discipline than I did at that age. They both wanted to wait until Christmas morning to do it all.
The timing of the unwrapping ceremony from year to year is a study in priorities of young people at different stages of their development. As preschoolers, the children were up before dawn. There were years when I would awake, convinced that it hadn’t been 30 minutes since the last screw was secured on that “easy-to-assemble” tricycle, to hear one of the urchins pedaling the thing down the hall. I was not sure of the hour; I only knew that the sun wasn’t up yet.
But the years passed, as they seem to do so quickly, and by the time the children were teenagers, getting to the tree on Christmas morning was not much of a priority. Sleeping late was. After a while, even the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls wafting from the kitchen wasn’t enough to summon them from their slumber.
“We’re opening our presents now,” we would announce through closed doors. “Would you like to join us?”
Once the entire family was finally assembled in front of the tree, the younger child was assigned the task of delivering the packages to each member of the family, who had taken seats around the living room. We weren’t picking on the junior member of the team. Rather, it was a matter of form following function, because the smallest member of the delegation was uniquely suited to crawling under the lower branches of Christmas tree to capture the boxes that had been pushed all the way back to a no-man’s land behind the tree stand.
One of the children would start the ritual by opening one present, showing it off to the rest of us while announcing from whom it came. Some appropriate comments were made about the thoughtfulness of the giver and the delight with which the recipient received it. Then, it was time for the next family member in the circle to take his or her turn.
We went around the circle repeatedly until all presents were opened. Typically, I ran out first, but that was OK. My present was watching the children open their gifts. I’m sure a psychologist could write a thesis on what was happening.
I’ve talked to several parents with more than one child who have had the same experience with their offsprings’ personalities. One may be an introvert, while another is an extrovert. One loves the arts, another goes for math and science. It’s amazing how young people growing up in the same environment can be so different.
With our two children, those differences were underscored by the way they opened Christmas presents — at least when they were preschoolers. The older children, our daughter, found great pleasure in ripping open the gift wrap, letting paper and ribbons fly all over the room. For several years, that exercise seemed to be more of a treat than enjoying the presents inside. Once one box was open, she almost had to be restrained from moving on to the others.
The younger child, our son, went the opposite route. He appeared content to play the rest of the day with the first toy he opened. It took a bit of persuasion to convince him to move along to the next one when his time rolled around again.
As the children grew up and the nest emptied, traditions have changed. Even the availability of the children on Christmas Day varies, as we now share one of them with in-laws. But whatever the circumstances, and regardless of who is or is not gathered around the tree each Christmas, one of the best presents we can open each year doesn’t come in a package and can’t be bought in a store. It’s the memories we have collected through the years that help make Christmas special. As we enter another season, hopefully you’ll find yourself able to make many new ones. If not, I trust that the remembrances you’ll be opening this year are joyful.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.