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It's painful, messy, labour intensive and stressful. No, its not childbirth, but getting through the holiday season when you have children. You may have heard that Christmas is really all about children. It is. It's all about them. They'll tell you so themselves. It is very easy to get swept up in the consumerism and overzealousness of the holiday period, in the eternal quest to provide the "best Christmas ever" for your darling angels -- although frankly how we're ever going to top the first one is beyond me.
To help new and old parents alike, take advantage of this "expert advice" from hearty troopers who have been through the holiday season more than once and lived to tell the tale. Through trial, error and major meltdowns in shopping malls (sadly, not by the children), these tips will help you get through the holidays with a smile.
• Watch your budget
Overspending is an easy trap to fall into when children are exposed to countless hours of merciless promotion for the latest "have to have it" toy or gadget. Finding yourself shoving old ladies aside and standing in line at midnight to acquire one of the "must have" toys is an amateur's mistake.
No two-year-old really needed the Tickle Me Elmo during that frenzy. Remember Cabbage Patch Kids? Was it a really fun toy which provided endless hours of fun? Exactly. Limit the kids to three choices that Santa, or yourself, is expected to bring. This will allow for parents to choose the one gift they can a) find and b) afford.
• Keep an eye on Santa's list
Ah, Santa. Resist the weird and unattainable requests. Have the kids write their lists in November, suggests Eva Chan, mother of three, with the aforementioned three items -- which are understood be an 'either/or' proposition. "This certainly puts a stop to the 'ever changing' Santa list and puts the kibosh on those last minute Santa requests," she says.
If Santa is unable to come up with even one of the three requests (hey it does happen), Dina Vardouniotis of Toronto, mother of two young sons, recommends the following escape line: "Santa made a mistake, he thought Grandma was gonna get it!" Blaming of innocent immediate family relatives gets her extra points in the surviving the holiday sweepstakes.
• Prepare your kids for family visits
Visiting relatives and getting smothered by Auntie Halitosis is no picnic for anyone, especially your unsuspecting children. Dina suggests showing the kids a picture of the relatives they will see prior to the visit. "Tell them a little bit about the person and suggest some things they can talk about with the cousin they've never met before," she offers.
If you have been extremely nasty in a previous life and the relatives are coming to your house, avoid the number one mistake people make: Moving their own children and themselves out of their beds to make room for these freeloaders. Everyone sleeps better in their own bed, and this is especially true for the toddler crowd. Where exactly is the downside of making your still annoying younger brother feel uncomfortable sleeping in a foldout cot in the basement? "Get rid of the Bow Flex in the basement that no one uses and make room for a bed," Dina offers.
• The art of gift-giving
Finding appropriate gifts for children is not easy. If you are fortunate to be asked by thoughtful relatives what your children would like for Christmas, don't make the mistake of saying, "Anything you buy will be fine." It won't, and you'll have tears or derision on Christmas morning to deal with.
Send a list in advance. Gift certificates can be a great gift for children who are old enough to appreciate the value of money and also old enough to go to the mall themselves. For kids under 10, this means extra work for Mom and Dad. You may also be faced with something such as the plaintive cry of Eva's son Jonathan at age 6: "Why did Uncle Ronnie give me a piece of paper?" If you do receive money for a Christmas gift (check the cards as they come in to avoid Christmas morning shocks), it's a good idea to buy something "real" for them to open on Christmas morning.
However, once the kids are older you can take them out to purchase ill-advised, badly made, overpriced toys for themselves and "really make those dollars stretch by convincing them to wait until Boxing Day sales," says Eva. "The only hitch -- you have to take them!"
• Christmas morning activities
So you've shopped until you've dropped every dime in your wallet -- and Christmas morning has arrived. In order to keep the mayhem and whining at a minimum, insist that only stockings can be opened until everyone is downstairs. In our house, where ages range from 2-13, "morning" is a relative term, stretching from 4 a.m. to noon.
Opening one present at a time and assigning a child to be Santa (to hand out the gifts) can slow things down and allow for the necessary coffee and other artificial stimulants to kick in. The Santa gifts will be the most anticipated. If you have been unable to secure the #1 gift, make sure you've given advance notice to the child to avoid a major trauma (therapy is so expensive). I've actually bought the gift first and then convinced the child that they really want it through subliminal and in-your-face strategies ("Aren't those Spiderman scooters the coolest thing...").
Santa can be practical and stuff stockings with socks, underwear, pencils and other usually boring items, made less pedestrian by splurging on items which carry a character or brand the kids really like. Susan Michalek of Toronto, mother to six-year-old Thomas and three-year-old twins Richard and Lauren, says "My Mom taught me that Santa doesn't just make toys -- he also has a deal with the Dentist and the Doctor and people at the crayon and school supplies stores." Smart woman. "The other key thing she taught me was never ever use the same wrapping paper that Santa uses!" I learned this one the hard way when my bright little five-year-old daughter caught this amateur mistake. I'm still not sure if she believed that we both shop at the same dollar store.
Other quick tips:
• If you leave cookies and milk out for Santa, make sure there are crumbs left on the plate, the milk is drunk, and that they don't see the half eaten cookie in the garbage can the next morning. Ditto on the carrot for the reindeer.
• If you send letters to Santa at Canada Post (North Pole, H0H 0H0 or e-mail him) for more than one child, hold on to the responses as they come in to ensure everyone gets one back. You may have to pen one yourself to avoid abandonment issues, and again, more expensive therapy.
• Try to keep to regular nap and bedtime schedules if possible, yours, as well as the kids. Cranky is as cranky does.
• If you have older children who are "in on Santa," make them keep the magic alive for their younger siblings by involving them in the Santa shopping, or disposing of the cookies and milk when the little ones are in bed. Children between the ages of 12 and 18 apparently know everything anyway.
Not everything has to be perfect -- the tree is a little Charlie Brown, the decorations have been hung all within a 4-1/2 inch space by the two-year-old, the turkey is a bit overdone, and the 13-year-old wasn't sincere enough in her thanks for the green nylon turtleneck from Granny -- just remember you'll have next year to get it all right again.Kathy Buckworth is a Mississauga-based freelance writer with four children aged 3-13. She has managed to survive many Christmases through deception, manipulation and bribery. Her first book, The Secret Life of Supermom was published by Sourcebooks Inc., in May 2005.