The Christmas with no pictures

I believe that there are generally two kinds of events in life: the ones that are fun at the time, and the ones that make a good story later. As Christmas 2019 winds to a close as one of the “fun to experience” Christmases, I’d like to head back through the mists of time to tell the story of another Christmas.

This Christmas Eve I spent nearly 10 hours wrestling my 2019 photographs into submission. I firmly believe in the near-miraculous value of a good picture to help you remember an event as being much more fun than you thought it was at the time, and so I take a lot of pictures. I suspect this year’s tally was somewhere around 12,000 pictures (which was impossible for most of human history). I have pictures of almost everything. But there is this one Christmas where we go from this:

Setting out Santa’s cookies

To this

Hallway Hex Bugs

Strangely missing from the otherwise complete photographic documentation of my life is all the Christmas morning stuff. Where are the kids faces coming down the stairs? The stockings? The chaos of a living room in a flurry of wrapping paper? The look on my sons’ faces when they open their “big present”?

Well, let me tell you a story. The year was 2013, and on this Christmas my sons were 8 and 5 years old: peak Christmas aged. The joy and excitement were running high on Christmas Eve, and the full paraphernalia of both religious and secular were on display as we came back from Christmas Eve services to lay out a plate of cookies and milk for Santa. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, and the parents stayed up very late making sure that the scene to be uncovered in the morning was absolutely perfect. We were tired but satisfied as we went to bed that night, imagining the joy our children would experience because of our efforts the next day.

In the midst of our sugar-plum dreams, in the cold dark of a December morning, a sound intruded into our sleep. What could that be? But ah well, our children had yet to awaken us, so it couldn’t be that important. We rolled back over. But then, it came again. Was that… a squeal of joy? Wait, was that the sound of paper being torn? As if of mutual accord we flung ourselves out of bed and down the stairs, only to be confronted by a veritable blizzard of confetti-sized wrapping paper shrouding our two hellions as they tore into wrapped packages with a savagery usually only found in hungry, wild beasts.

Yes. They had gotten up and started on Christmas presents all on their own. They’d unwrapped over half their presents before we came down, screeching. It took me HOURS to get over it enough to take any more pictures. I was WROTH. I knew, in some tiny corner of my mind, that it might eventually be a funny story. I’m here to tell you that the amount of time required to accomplish that is no less than 6 years.

Here’s the decision-making, as paraphrased from the retelling of my eldest son.

So if you’ve ever met my mother, you would know that she is not what you would call a “morning person”. So when I woke up early on Christmas morning, I knew that my parents would not be excited to wake up so early. So I woke up Thane and went downstairs to give them a few more minutes to sleep. But our stockings were right there! I figured it would keep Thane quiet if we just opened our stockings, so we did. But then we’d opened our stockings. And I thought it wouldn’t hurt to open just one present to play with it, so Thane and I each opened one present. But then, before I could stop him, Thane opened a second! And it was only fair that I should open a second one too. Things after that got a bit out of control.

Now, every Christmas Eve, I remind my children that there is NO OPENING PRESENTS WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION!

And to those of you who just lived through one of those, uh, challenging celebrations: take pictures. It’ll be a great story, someday.

Explaining his perfidy to grandma

A gift to be simple

A pretty accurate reflection of our Christmas tree

I remember very distinctly getting Christmas presents for my father. There was the year I got him the post-it-note paint brush. I went through a phase of chocolate-covered Cherries – the kind you get in the super market. My sister and I thought soap-on-a-rope to be the utmost in paternal gift-giving.

My husband has gone for about a week for a work conference that has kept him very busy. On my last night home alone with the boys, I figured it was a great time to pick up some Christmas presents for daddy from his boys, and to pick up a book for Grey’s class book swap, so I swung by The Book Oasis and told the boys to pick out a book for their father. (Sorry for ruining the surprise love! They’re both books. The only reason you will not know within minutes of seeing Thane exactly which books is because he can’t remember the name.)

We then stopped by the grocery store, where the boys begged for *their own* wrapping paper. In a moment of parental weakness, straight off the “yes you will eat fish for dinner” battle in the meat section, I bowed to popular sentiment.

When we got home, Grey set right to wrapping. Eschewing lame things like “advice” he set about wrapping his gift to his father. His eyes lit up with the thought of placing this little package under the tree, of what his dad would look like when he opened the package. All of a sudden, one measly package to his dad wasn’t nearly enough. He locked himself in his room and yelled at the top of his voice, “NO ONE COME IN HERE! I’M DOING SOMETHING SECRET!” Several packages were added to the tree before bedtime hit with full force. I had to put my down on “just one more present!” and tell him to get his rear into bed.

As it was, he presented me with an “early Christmas present” – a Lego tree with Data and Tiberius under it. Thane, meanwhile, was desperately casting around the house for anything that might be put into his father’s stocking: pieces of gum, random bits of candy, half-used notepads.

The moment when you realize that giving good gifts is possibly even better than getting good gifts is an awesome moment. Generosity, especially when you get to bask in the recipient’s enjoyment and approval, feels *really good*. For the little ones the fun of Christmas morning is getting to open presents. But for me, the great pleasure is watching them open their gifts. It is a fantastic thing to see my sons learn the joy of generosity.

Taped with LOVE

Things we like

First let me start by saying that this post is not sponsored by anyone. I am so far from being big enough or influential enough to be sponsored, you can’t even see it from here. I believe this entitles me to say that I have moral high ground and am philosophically opposed to polluting the purity of intention of my blog by crass commercial considerations. Of course, what I really mean is, “I’m too small to be sponsored, but there’s still some stuff we like.”

So here’s some background information. I have two boys, age six (Grey) and three (Thane). The six year old boy is a reader. The entire family loves games and books. And like most American families, we try to limit the amount of “screen time” (with varying success) and have more real life play time. Of course, like most American families we find this leads to squabbling and fighting, but hey. You can’t make an omelet without breaking any eggs…

And here are some things we like:

1) Busy Ball Bopper

Busy Ball Bopper
Busy Ball Bopper

We’ve had ours since Grey was a year old. I personally cannot believe that through some miracle, we still also have all five original balls that came with it – that’s just a little unreal. But this is probably the only toy that’s been in constant rotation for five years. Every kid who comes to our house – chances are – ends up playing with it. And even my oh-so-sophisticated Kindergartener can still sometimes be found setting and off and playing with it. If you’re a grandparent or aunt/uncle and need just one toy in your house for a wide variety of periodically visiting children, I highly recommend this one.

Parents: B- : needs batteries, makes noise and relatively large
6 year old: B+ : Not endless fun, but experiments with air pressure add interest
3 year old: A- : Chasing balls around is fun. Also seeing if your car can go through.
1 year old: A+ : Best. Toy. Ever.

2) Imaginets


These were one of those toys I bought because parents must try to give their children creative and educational toys. For their part, children try to only play with toys that come from fast food meals and/or have strong marketing tie ins. My children must have overestimated the marketing budget for this toy, because they love it and they play with it all the time. Basically, it’s a set of colorful magnets in different shapes. We did 17 layers of magnetic paint on our wall, but it was still insufficient for the heavy ‘fridge magnetic toys. But it turns out perfectly for these lighter wooden shapes. The kit comes with a metal box for the magnets, so you can play “on the go”. It also comes with a bunch of patterns for kids to use. My children disdained the patterns, and have crafted their own numerous fantastic creations. In fact, my only complaint with this toy is that the boys whine when their brother destroys their latest amazing design.

It’s creative, quiet, colorful, collaborative, quasi-educational, compelling and non-messy. This toy gets my highest marks. I’m not sure it would work quite as well if you didn’t have, you know, a central wall right in the action with great exposure, but it’s definitely worth the attempt.

Parents: A+ : quiet, creative and absorbing
6 year old: A : Grey is the one who plays the most with this. He like both abstract and concrete “sculptures”
3 year old: B : I thought the patterns were too advanced for Thane, but the other day he made quite a credible happy face. He may not have the fine motor skills to draw representationally, but he can make pictures with these shapes.

Another sculpture
Another sculpture

3) Captain Raptor

Captain Raptor
Is this the end for Captain Raptor?

I periodically get compliments from people on the books that are part of every present I give to kids. Once or twice people have asked me, “How do you find such great books?!” The answer is that I go to the library. We get about 20 books a fortnight. 18 of them are no better than ok. (And in the case of the freaking Scooby Doo readers… well, the less said about those the better…) And then one or two of them will be really good. About once every one or two months I uncover a new favorite. That’s how I discovered Captain Raptor.

Captain Raptor is freaking amazing. Basically: dinosaur astronauts in a pulp comic genre. Every third page ends with the line, “Is this the end for Captain Raptor?” I LOVE this book. There are a few more in the series that I haven’t bought yet because I’m savoring them. If you know an adventure-loving, space-loving, dino-loving kid from age 2 to 10, you should get them one of these books because they are that awesome. Alternately, if you know a parent who might consider illiteracy not really so awful after all due to having to read “Scooby Doo and the Shiny Spooky Knights” every single night for the last two years, do them a favor and give them some alternate ammunition.

Parents: A+ : Fun to read, no uncomfortable subtext, great illustrations, get to say “Is this the end for Captain Raptor” repeatedly.
6 year old: B+ : Grey still likes picture books, but doesn’t get the in-jokes. He’s not the dino/space fanatic his brother is, so while he likes this book, he’s not as enamored with it as I am.
3 year old: A : Loves the dinosaurs. Loves space. Thinks it’s incredibly silly when humans are referred to as aliens. Only prevented from reaching an A+ because it’s not Scooby Doo.

4) Scooby Doo

Scooby Doo
Scooby Doo

So Thane is obsessed with Scooby. His complete absorption in all things Mystery Inc. has not abated one whit, to my surprise. He wanders around pulling masks off people and saying, “Let’s see who it really is!” But for all my Scooby-fatigue, I think I could have done a lot worse in the obsession department. Even after wearing out several DVDs of Scooby, I still find it pretty funny when I’m in the room. It leads to fun and un-objectionable role-playing on the part of Thane. It doesn’t have the fast cuts which have been shown to not help concentration of kids. And hey, the music is actually pretty good. (You remember those chase montages?)

Parents: B : Not bad source material (as long as you avoid the atrocious “13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo”), enough stuff in the genre to spread out and be able to buy tie in materials, just a little wearying after the first 6 months.
6 year old: B : Grey prefers variety, so he gets annoyed when all his brother ever wants to watch is Scooby. Still, I think he suffers less than he would if his strong-willed sibling was obsessed with, say, Barney.
3 year old: A++++ : There is nothing in this world better than Scooby Doo.

5) Zingo


Playing games is part of what we do as a family. Adam and I play board or role-playing games one or two nights a week every week. Grey, now that he’s a reader, can play a relatively wide variety of games. But finding a game that all four of us can play – non-reader to experienced player – that does NOT make the adults want to gouge out their eyes or that is incredibly tedious to set up is a challenge. Zingo meets this challenge. There are cards with simple words and pictures (actually a language acquisition opportunity, since the bored parent can start pointing out the phonics of the cards to the kids). There’s a very simple mechanic for revealing the tokens. There’s no turn-taking for the impatient children. And the game is well-balanced so no one runs away with all the honors too quickly. It’s also got a mechanic that makes it easier for a grownup to throw the game (first person to call the card gets it… so you just have to be slightly slower than your three year old). This is the first game we’ve been able to play – all four of us – sitting around our kitchen table. That’s a pretty cool thing.

So how about you? Have you experienced any of the wonders listed above? What are some of the popular toys/games/books in your family? Do you have recommendations?