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The magic, the myth and the mess of Christmas

With Christmas safely behind us, we’ve packed away the evidence into plastic bins in the attic: the five-foot nutcrackers that flanked the front door, the LED-lit snowflakes that lined the walk, the plastic garland, cheap holly, pine scented candles, and the miraculously in-tact glass ornaments. 

Everyone tells you this, and they aren’t wrong, the holidays are magical with children.   

Still, Christmas was a mess this year.  

Even though we said we wouldn’t, we waited until the last minute to buy and wrap gifts. If it weren’t for the flu and those four days I was quarantined in the basement, Christmas would have been bare Amazon boxes and an errant dollar-store bow or two.  

As it was, I spent most of my time in the runup to the big day sweating out the fever, surrounded by a pile of scotch tape, scissors, crumpled and crusty tissues, cough drops, and misshapen cuts of wrapping paper.  

My Christmases as a kid never seemed so overwhelming, but now, as a parent, incessant worries become the season.   

Did we buy enough gifts for our daughter? Maybe too many for our oldest?  

We kept a running list of gifts for each of our three kids, and though we thought we’d been fair, it was difficult not to wonder if our daughter would have appreciated the space station toy instead of our younger son. And is it weird to give a doll to one of our boys to even out the gift piles?   

Please, tell me that I’m not alone in this: the most unsettling part of the holidays isn’t the gift-giving, but the myth-making that burdens every parent who accepts the Christmas rituals.  

In a household where one of the greatest transgressions is a fib, as parents we build a giant lie around Santa, and his slavish elves and reindeer. And then we carefully apply smaller fibs, creating a rubber-band ball of them, affixed with a new band of lies every time the stories don’t quite add up.  

We introduced Santa to our 4-year old, Riley, as a magical being who sometimes wraps gifts in the same paper that daddy and papa use, and who mixes the elves’ gifts in with the ones we bought on Amazon. This gives us umbrage from the risk that one of us claims responsibility for a particularly popular purchase that was said to have been brought by Santa. 

Add to all of this the weird elf on the shelf.  

As if it wasn’t enough to buy a multitude of gifts that will quickly be forgotten, now we had to move this doll (a well-meaning gift we didn’t want) around the house each night and pretend it magically repositioned itself when no one was looking.   

On day three of our ruse, our son stood glaring at the elf slumped on the mantel and whispered, “How…how did he get up there, papa?” 

As a parent raised on Child’s Play films, the doll’s dead-eyed stare fixed to an empty room gives me the creeps. This quaint Christmas reminder had become altogether sinister, but like much else about the holiday season, the ritual gains momentum and cannot be stopped.  

One night, a few weeks into the new year, with the kids already in bed, I opened a closet door to put away the leaf from the dining room table that we’d prepped for our Christmas dinner that never happened.  

Way in the back of the closet sat an unwrapped gift I bought for myself a few months ago, Cormac McCarthy’s newest books, a box set, still in the plastic, forgotten.  

I went to the basement for the bag of tape, scissors, and the rolls of Christmas wrap.  

Deliberate this time, not rushed with a deadline and a pile of children’s toys, I chose the Peanuts wrapping paper, and evened out the repeating design, spacing the tape out on the seam you can only find if you look closely.  

Then I placed my first wrapped 2023 Christmas gift in the back of my bedroom closet just to surprise myself 11 months from now.  

The kids won’t remember this Christmas and probably not the next one either.   

Maybe I’ll remember that I’d stashed  away this gift for myself, and even if I do, I’ll have to wonder, given the quality of the wrap job, if this wasn’t the work of Santa or one of his elves. 


Alex Rodgers is a contributing writer for Central Penn Parent operating under a pen name. Central Penn Parent’s editors know the writer and have agreed to keep his name anonymous.  

Alex and his husband are the proud and exhausted parents of three children under 5 years old. When he’s not chasing after kids, Alex escapes to his professional job in Central Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]

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