Tip No. 1: Don't let your kids hear the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It gives them the impression that families like theirs, who celebrate only ONE day of Christmas, are experiencing only 8.3 percent of what the season has to offer. Being children, they don't realize that 12 days' immersion in so much festivity and joy would crush their parents like submarines that've gone down too deep.
Tip No. 2: If there's a 10-year-old boy on your list, you can make him the happiest kid in America - for about $2.50. I learned this secret many years ago at the annual Christmas Eve gathering at my in-laws' house.
Whoopee cushions might never replace caroling, but my gift to my favorite nephew enlivened the party and caused him merriment undreamed of. I wouldn't say I became a hero to the rest of the clan, but when the party ended, the kid actually kissed me good-bye, something he hadn't done since he was a tot.
Another time, we went to dinner at the home of family friends and I brought a whoopee cushion for their young son. (My wife brought a bottle of wine. Go figure.) The boy had never seen a whoopee cushion before, but after 10 minutes of exploring its possibilities, a mere thank-you seemed inadequate. "BLESS you, Rick!" he said.
Tip No. 3: Many a Christmas surprise has been ruined by weak follow-through. My wife Betsy is a thoughtful and energetic gift-buyer, but then she just wraps the presents and heaves 'em into our bedroom closet. That might be the right place to hide my mom's sorority paddle or 20 Fair Isle sweaters that haven't been worn in 20 years. But a mountain of gaily wrapped presents can't be overlooked, especially by a child whose curiosity burns with the intensity of a road flare.
Tip No. 4: Don't expect much excitement when you give clothing to little kids. If you think clothes are not a basic entitlement, try sending Junior to school naked. The authorities would send a note home at the very least. Except when gifting the rare young clothes-horse, you might as well gift-wrap a peanut-butter sandwich. I have to admit, in 15 years of fatherhood I've only bought one item of kid clothing. In the early throes of parental ecstasy, I bought 2-year-old Marie a jaunty white one-piece sunsuit with little nautical flags printed on it. Proud as I was of the purchase, I knew enough not to gift-wrap it. Her wearing of it was my thrill, not hers.
Sometime in the past dozen years, when I wasn't paying attention, she changed her look. Nautical sunsuits and sweet party dresses are out and apparently have been for some months. Marie, age 15 now, wears olive-drab T-shirts, maroon kerchiefs and heavy black boots that Frankenstein's monster would consider too butch. She does get excited about clothes, but what rational mind could guess what she'd want? The best bet with teenagers is to take them to the store, have them select the garment and then promise to act surprised on Christmas morning.
(My mother-in-law tried a variation on this. She bought a sweater for my wife, brought it home, turned out the lights and let her try it on for size in total darkness. My wife really was surprised on Christmas morning. The sweater was the only thing in the world that color.)
Tip No. 5: Don't give a pet for Christmas. The status of a cat or dog ought to be closer to Family Member than to Living Toy. A puppy found under a Christmas tree might seem to a kid to have been built by elves. To deepen their emotional attachment and sense of responsibility, kids should have a direct role in the acquisition. (That's why expectant fathers are hauled into delivery rooms and made to watch. It ruins the surprise, but it does make a point.)
Tip No. 6: If you have more than one child, give gifts that require a playmate, such as a board game, walkie-talkies or handcuffs.
Tip No. 7: Here's a tough one: Don't give your child anything with headphones. They are alienating and anti-family. Even someone whose father is hollering, "Turn down that #@%!!& music!" is at least in contact with his Old Man. A kid wearing headphones is alone in a blissful world in which parents do not exist. No child should be allowed to be THAT happy, even on Christmas.
- Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.