Like many Americans, I grew up with Santa Claus. As December progressed, the floor under our tree would fill with presents from and to all family members – parents, grandparents, kids, cousins, aunts, uncles. Then, on Christmas morning, we would wake early – usually at 5:00, unable to sleep, checking the clocks every minute, watching the minutes slowly tick by until the clock finally hit 7:00, when we were allowed to wake everyone in the house and get the day started. Christmas morning, our stockings would be stuffed and there would be new toys from Santa, waiting for us by the tree. We spent the morning opening gifts, from Santa and from each other.
Best year ever: Santa brought my brother the Millennium Falcon and a few Star Wars figurines. He brought me an enormous Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse. We were both in heaven. My parents remember that being the year that they were up most of the night putting those things together (I seem to recall some loud banging noises accompanied by the occasional muttered curse), and that there were a few hundred decal stickers between the two big gifts. But they remember it all with a smile and are happy to hear us reminisce about that year.
Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree
On one of my first Christmases with my husband, we shopped together for our niece and nephew, his brother’s kids who live in France. It was so exciting for me, because at the time they were the only children in our family. But when my husband slapped the tags on the gifts, inscribed with “de la part du Pére Noël,” he had a huge smile on his face and I got squinty-eyed.
“But, those are from us. Not Santa.”
“Yeah, but, I thought…” He looked confused.
It turns out that in my husband’s family, like many French families, all presents under the tree magically appear on Christmas morning. And they are all from Santa.
I reasoned that we so rarely see our niece and nephew and I wanted them to know the gifts were from us. I wanted them to know we were thinking of them. He reasoned that this is the way it’s done, chez lui.
I felt so weird about it. For one, I believe that receiving gifts from people other than Santa gives children a valuable lesson in being grateful and thanking those people. That learning to give gifts as a child is a valuable lesson as well. I also felt that we were stepping on my in-laws toes. After all, isn’t it the right of the parents to play Santa? I’ve looked forward to that since long before I had kids. I don’t want anyone else coming in and taking over Santa’s role in our home, and I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. My mom once pointed out that she believed the way the tree was filled with presents from and to everyone, not just Santa, made the transition into realizing that Santa wasn’t quite so real (part of me will always hold onto that magic) easier for us as kids.
For my husband, the magic of Christmas was, in part, the overnight filling of the tree. And the fun for adults is playing Santa to everyone.
A minor clash in the grand scheme of things, really. Today, we send the gifts from us, not Santa. The gifts that come from France are from the kids’ Aunt and Uncle, and from their Mimi and Papy – so perhaps traditions in France are changing? Many French people I know still label everything “from Santa.” I’m grateful that our family does not. Because, even though our kids don’t get much time with the French side of their family, they know that they are being thought of. As the kiddos rip through the paper wrapping, I make sure to grab it and say, “This is from….” So they know.
We’ve embraced many of each other’s Christmas traditions and are forging our way into creating traditions unique to our family. We continue to play with the menus for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Maybe we will forever. For years my parents, who live in southern Arizona, hosted a Christmas Eve mexican dinner with tamales, chimichangas, and margaritas for family and close friends. I miss those, but it’s time for us to start hosting. For my husband and me, a house full of loved ones, good food, twinkling lights on the tree, and lots of hugs make for a great day. Presents fill the space under our tree and tonight, Santa will come with a few more for everyone. Beyond that, we’re still winging it.
Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noël to all!