When I got married, I dreamed of having one of those families where everyone wears matching snowflake sweaters and sings carols around the piano. I hoped our future children would invite their friends over to string popcorn and cranberries. We would count our blessings over a crackling fire and rejoice more in the giving than in the receiving.
In pursuit of this vision, I aggressively established holiday traditions. One was handmade cards—200 of them—crafted from felt, buttons, and scrapbook paper, dispatched around the globe in square brown envelopes requiring extra postage. One year, I made the envelopes myself. Another, I melted red sealing wax on the flaps, imprinting each red puddle with a tiny candy-cane stamp. I would save lone-soldier socks all year to fashion into ornaments—festive balls stuffed with pillow batting and tied up with grosgrain ribbon. I invested in a candy thermometer and a double boiler and made six varieties of holiday confections, which I bundled into festive tins tied with raffia.
I left matching holiday pajamas under each of our kids’ beds with a note that said, “Congratulations! You’ve received this bonus gift because you were extra good this year.” For our annual winter-solstice party, I made 200 pigs in a blanket. I even owned a tasteful holiday sweater.
But after 13 years of producing the extravaganza for everyone else, I started to dread the holiday season. My special traditions felt like items to check off a list, especially in conjunction with shopping for dozens of presents, mobilizing gift cards for teachers and babysitters, assembling presentable clothing for holiday events, and attending sing-alongs at multiple schools and houses of worship.
I started to get sloppy. I ordered custom postage stamps with a photo of our family and didn’t notice that one of our daughters had been cropped out. (“Huh? Guess I didn’t make the cut,” she said as she glanced at the envelopes, ready to be mailed.) I dropped the ball on the bonus present, and our youngest burst into tears: “Was I bad?!”
This all culminated in a “Mommie Dearest” moment the night before Christmas 2014. We hosted dinner for 12. When the guests left, sometime after midnight, I pulled out the presents from closets, under beds, inside cabinets—all of them still unwrapped. With piles and shopping bags surrounding me, I discovered my wrapping supplies were down to almost nothing—scraps from a school fund-raiser, one wafer-thin roll of tape, no scissors. From the basement, I could hear my husband, Ethan, cursing as he attempted to assemble a mini trampoline.
About to lose my mind, I assessed the damage and marched into our older kids’ rooms. “Guys,” I said, as they blinked like moles in the light, “do you still believe in Santa?”
“No,” said the 14-year-old, Louisa.
“Maybe a little bit,” said Simon, 12, hedging his bets. Their eight-year-old sister, Frankie, had fallen asleep listening for Rudolph.
I took a deep breath, visions of future therapy sessions dancing in my head. “OK, here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m Santa. And I need help.”
Back downstairs, I rationed slivers of tape, and my husband flattened old newspaper into gift wrap as our big kids diligently and quietly printed names and affixed labels with sweatshop resignation. In a rare conspiratorial moment, my daughter whispered to her younger brother, “Just so you know: What’s happening here is not normal.”
At 2 A.M., as my husband and I fell asleep, I whispered, “I’m not doing this again next year.”
“Good night, Scrooge,” he said.
The following December, with the help of my coconspirator (Ethan), I set out to have a different kind of Christmas. I didn’t obsess about cards or cookies. I trimmed the list for our holiday party and served less food (nobody noticed). Our younger daughter wore a hand-me-down denim vest and clunky snow boots to her school concert, and my heart still grew three sizes when her class played “The Dreidel Song.” For the first time in 14 years, we arrived at my mom’s choir concert early enough to snag five seats in the same pew. I sat holding my husband’s hand, actually listening to the hymns instead of jotting a to-do list in the margins of the program. When I closed my eyes, I was transported back to a familiar and beloved touchstone from childhood: the sound of my mom’s alto, belting out the chorus of “We Three Kings.”
On Christmas Eve, I couldn’t fall asleep—not because we were spelunking in the junk drawer for a Phillips-head at midnight, but because I couldn’t wait for the big reveal we’d planned for Christmas morning. We’d told the kids there would be something different about gifts this year, but we didn’t get specific. Our secret was that instead of the usual bounty, much of which gets abandoned by the tree, we were taking a surprise 10-day road trip from our New Jersey home to the Carolinas, visiting Charleston, Hilton Head, and Asheville (city, beach, and mountains), with a stop in Washington, D.C., on the way back.
Planning and booking this vacation took a total of three hours—a fraction of the time we normally spend brainstorming and shopping for gifts. And the execution cost less than you might expect, thanks to low gas prices, a tight souvenir budget, and off-season hotel rates.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Christmas Eve. After our dinner for 12 (Ethan made pork ragu in the slow cooker, and I passed the dessert torch on to our older daughter, whose chocolate chip cookies are our family’s best hope for future wealth), the kids headed upstairs, archly requesting a decent night’s sleep. Ethan and I took our time wrapping a couple of small gifts, then curled up and watched a movie together, still making it to bed before midnight.
I woke up nervous that the kids would feel cheated by the fact that there was so little under the tree. Turned out, when we came downstairs, the cats—as if accessories to our Christmas plan—had created a distraction by shredding the wrapping paper off most of the gifts. The kids didn’t even seem to notice that their haul was significantly smaller than usual and that it consisted mostly of basics, like mittens, socks, and books.
When there were no more boxes to open, my husband handed a slip of paper to the kids. It was a rhyming clue—the first of eight leading to our big reveal. The hunt took us, as a family, through the house, from attic to basement, clue to clue, and finally brought us to the driveway. Opening the door to our minivan, the kids found a small white box buckled into the middle seat. Inside was a scrapbook revealing, in photos and words, the trip that we would embark on the next day.
Our youngest, once she realized what was happening, said with utter delight, “It’s like those commercials where they get a surprise trip to Disney World, but better!” And our two older kids were just as excited, even though they’re in the throes of adolescence, a zone naturally pillared by resentment and boredom.
Next, we gave each kid a certificate for his or her own “experience gift”: a culinary tour of Charleston for Louisa; a Savannah ghost tour via hearse (!) for Simon; and a horseback ride through a nature preserve on Hilton Head for animal-lover Frankie. I also surprised my husband with a reservation for zip-lining, which quickly became the most hotly anticipated event of the week.