My mother-in-law told me that when she was a child, she wasn’t allowed to open her Christmas presents until after church, and then only after the adults had opened theirs. To make it even more excruciating, each package was taken apart bit by bit. First the ribbon was untied (never cut), smoothed out and carefully rolled up to be ironed another day. The tape was peeled slowly from the paper which was then carefully removed and refolded in its original fold lines. Then, (It’s not over) the gift was removed and passed around the room to be admired in detail. No wonder that, when she was a grandmother, she led the charge to tear into the piles of gifts like she was operating a runaway bulldozer.

In my family, gifts were not wrapped. You staked out a corner of the rug and put out a sign with your name on it. There was one rule that even Santa obeyed: nothing that flies through the air. That was the mother of five boys putting her foot down.

My husband’s family wraps everything. Our son, when in college, amused his friends with tales of our obsessive Christmas traditions. “My father even wraps the batteries,” he told his incredulous friends.

Letters to Santa were a chance to get in a good word about one’s behavior during the past year. Such perfect children! The requests usually included the toy du jour, something heavily advertised on the tube. Our own preferences pointed to something wooden and educational. We compromised. 

We solved the discrepancies in the amount of gifts different children received by saying Santa brought the same amount to everyone and the parents added to the haul.    

When the kids were just starting to waver in their relationship with the big guy, my husband made a template of a man’s size-16 boot and sifted ashes through it all over the living room carpet. That proved some one had been there while we slept. That someone could only have gained entrance through the chimney because there was soot everywhere. The carrots were thoroughly chewed and spat out on a plate to prove that reindeer with sloppy eating habits had been about. A few cookie crumbs littered the floor and paper napkins were balled up, having obviously been used to wipe someone’s hairy face. A wrung-out washcloth lay next to a hand towel that bore traces of cinders. The cigar was half smoked and the beer was gone.

In the morning, after all the gifts were open, a few more presents would be discovered up on the roof right next to the chimney. They had obviously been dropped when someone was navigating his portly self in the descent into the fireplace. A ladder was fetched and the errant gifts retrieved.

We always listen to “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve: the Basil Rathbone version. It always makes me cry. We always have a “no rules day” on Christmas. That means you can eat leftover roast beef for breakfast and stay in your jammies all day.

We always have the prettiest tree and the best Christmas ever.