One of my most memorable Christmas gifts from childhood was a double wooden desk that our father built for my older sister and me when we were probably three and five. Its two slanted writing surfaces faced one another, each one hinged at the top to allow access to the space inside, each one with its own separate little seat.
My sister still has the desk, which has survived the years well. Her kids used it, and now it’s just the right size for her grandkids. It’s a simple, sturdy little piece of furniture, about knee high to an adult.
When it sat beside the Christmas tree all those years ago, however, to two curious little girls it seemed huge. Wrapped securely (in a blanket, my sister remembers), it was a bulky package that we couldn’t figure out. Its shape suggested a playhouse, but it wasn’t quite that big. A toy box, maybe? A doghouse for Boots?
We wondered. We imagined. We guessed. The one thing we didn’t do was peek.
Our forbearance wasn’t necessarily because we were such virtuous and obedient children—although of course we were. For us, pondering and speculating about the mysterious big gift was part of the fun. Finding out what it was ahead of time would have spoiled the pleasure of Christmas morning.
A few years later, my youngest sister, age three and a little shaky yet about the ethics of keeping secrets, told me a few days before Christmas what my main gift would be. I remember trying very hard not to listen, but she was so excited about her news that she shouted to make sure I could hear her even with my hands over my ears. I worried for the next week, not sure I was up to the thespian challenge of acting surprised when I unwrapped the package.
(Just in case you’re wondering, yes, I have long since forgiven my sister for her innocent transgression. She didn’t know any better or mean any harm. Besides, some years later her son decided to arrive in the world on Christmas Eve, just in time to deprive her of the big family dinner and gift-opening. What goes around does eventually come around.)
I can remember even as a little girl being shocked at two of my cousins, who waited till their mother was out of the house, then partially unwrapped their Christmas gifts. After seeing enough to find out what the gifts were, they wrapped them up again. The sneakiness of this was appalling to me. What I really didn’t understand, though, was how they could deliberately ruin their own fun by making sure there were no surprises under their tree.
All this is by way of explaining to my kids why I never took them to see Santa Claus when they were little. I never had them make Christmas lists or write letters to Santa. It seemed too much like abetting greed and selfishness. But above all, it would have spoiled the surprises. Where’s the fun of opening a gift if you already know what it’s going to be?
No doubt Christmas shopping would be easier if everyone made lists. But, even though it can be frustrating, part of the fun of gift-giving is in figuring out what people might like—being alert for hints, having secret conversations with other family members, sleuthing, and hiding gifts. Then, on Christmas morning, the pleasure is doubled, because the only thing more fun than opening one’s own surprise gifts is watching other people open theirs.
Merry Christmas, and may all your surprises be happy ones.