Not a ruined Christmas

The Year We Almost Ruined Christmas

My husband Mike and I almost ruined Christmas in 1990, when our son Matthew was four.

We put our inquisitive preschooler to bed on Christmas Eve, then returned downstairs to wrap presents in the kitchen. When a gift was finished, we brought it out to the living room and put it under the tree.

Our kitchen was at the back of the house, out of sight of the living room and the stairs in the front of the house. I worried if Matthew got out of bed and wandered downstairs, he’d catch us in the act of playing Santa.

“We should keep all the presents in the kitchen until we’re finished,” I told Mike. “Or one of us should stand guard in the living room.”

“He won’t wake up,” Mike assured me. “We’ll be fine.”

I reluctantly gave in, but I kept listening for the pitter-patter of little feet.

About halfway through our wrapping, I heard a suspicious creak, so I ran to the front of the house, Mike on my heels. There was Matthew standing on the stairs. My heart sunk.

“Did Santa come already?” he asked, his eyes shining.

“No,” I said, hurrying over to him. “These are just a few presents from Daddy and me and your grandparents.”

Giving Mike the evil eye, I quickly hustled Matthew upstairs and back into bed, “because if Santa sees that you’re awake, he may not leave any presents.”

Then I made Mike finish the wrapping while I kept watch. I tried to rearrange the pile of presents to make it look bigger, as if Santa did really deliver the motherlode.

The next morning, I watched Matthew carefully. Did he seem a little less excited than usual? Did he look at the pile of presents suspiciously? I wasn’t sure. Years later, I asked him if he remembered our faux pas, and he didn’t. We got lucky. Our almost ruined Christmas did not come to pass.

Memories to miss and those not to miss.

When I think back on those early Christmases with Matthew and Stephen, our younger son, I miss many things—the looks on their faces, their smiles, their whoops of joy as their wishes came true. I miss their innocence, their trust in me that the day would be joyful and special. I miss the satisfaction of a mommy job well done. 

What I don’t miss about those days include the pressure of carefully guarding Santa’s true identity (perhaps I was scarred by our near-miss), everything about Toys “R” Us, trying to remember where I hid the presents (I always forgot at least one), and staying up past midnight and being woken at the crack of dawn. 

The first year both of my sons wizened up to the Santa secret, Christmas got much easier. For the following few years, our celebrations were fairly similar. Both kids and adults knew what to expect. 

When children are little, parents are in charge of celebrations. For Christmas, we choose how (or if) to honor the birth of Jesus, the arrival of Santa, the receiving and giving of gifts both tangible and intangible, and myriad other details that make the day memorable.

Then, in the blink of an eye, little kids become teens, and in another blink, they become adults. Holiday traditions change in phases as they grow. After children are grown and flown, parents have little say in how their offspring celebrate. Trying to retain control and dictate dos and dont’s almost guarantees a ruined Christmas.

A formula for a ruined Christmas: Telling adult children how to celebrate.

Having adult children means sharing them with their significant others and in-laws, figuring out who will be where and when–if the weather cooperates, and planning meals and activities to accommodate family and friends of all ages.

For many families, these changes require some difficult conversations. For most parents, a feeling of loss accompanies the changes.

I feel the loss, the connection with my sons slipping through my fingers, knowing the needs and desires of significant others will take precedent over mine. It’s how it should be. It’s the circle of life, a circle with beginnings and endings. I welcome the beginnings but not always the endings.

And this year, sadly, we are still celebrating amidst a pandemic. Talk about ruined holidays for so many.  My family is all vaccinated and boosted, but with breakthrough infections (which one of our sons already experienced), we are extra cautious. 

Parents of adult children have to decide where to put their energy and their focus during holidays. I love the “release and rejoice” concept in this article.

Focus on these seven things during holidays when adult children change the course of your traditions… Click To Tweet

I decided I’m going to focus on seven things this Christmas:

  • Flexibility. If my sons can’t be here for Christmas dinner, what about breakfast? Mid-day? Christmas Eve? December 26th?
  • Letting go. My way is not always the right way. I raised my sons to be independent thinkers, and I’ll respect their creative input.
  • Managing expectations. Both for myself and for family members, “good enough” is not the enemy of “perfect.”
  • Meeting my own needs. What is within my control that will bring me joy? A bubble bath, perhaps?
  • Gratitude for the basics. If everyone is healthy and safe, what else really matters?
  • Being open to the possibility. (One of my favorite sayings.) I’m open to the possibility that new traditions may be even better than old traditions.
  • My one constant—my husband Michael.

I hope a ruined Christmas never materializes for my family or yours. If things don’t work out as you planned or hoped, take a deep breath and look at my list above to see if you can reestablish your balance and find contentment in the unexpected. Whatever happens, I hope it fills you with peace, hope, and joy. And remember–keep listening. You never know when your child may sneak up and surprise you.

Here’s my special message to you.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.


  1. Sima on December 25, 2021 at 8:03 AM

    I woke up this morning feeling sad, missing full house for the holidays . Then, I read the blog of my friend Karen DeBonis . It made me feel little better. “If everyone is healthy and safe , what else really matters “, she wrote.
    Gratitude for the basic. Well said my friend.

    • Karen DeBonis on December 25, 2021 at 8:10 AM

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply, Sima. This season is a mixed bag, isn’t it? Expectations are so high, it’s easy to feel down. I’m so glad I lifted your spirits, even if just a bit. And finding your comment here this Christmas morning lifted mine!

  2. Jack Herlocker on December 26, 2021 at 3:43 PM

    My sister had any number of odd things that had to be done when we celebrated “real Christmas” at our parents’ house with her kids.
    One year we absolutely HAD TO wrap every present for the kids in white tissue paper if it came from Santa, because “that’s what WE always did as kids!” Um, no, said our mother, just for a year or two when she waited too long to get new Christmas wrap (because it couldn’t match the other presents, right?), waited too long, and could only find white tissue paper in the stores.
    OTOH, I videoed my sister and our niece making Christmas cookies in our mother’s kitchen, because the gals decided that preserving memories like that was important; we still share those videos.
    And the kids, barely walking then but 21 and 19 now, still laugh about the tissue paper thing, which they don’t remember directly but have heard the story any number of times. Memories and stories are good.

    • Karen DeBonis on December 27, 2021 at 11:28 AM

      Jack, I love the tissue paper story–it sounds like just the type of thing I would do–running short on supplies at the last minute, lol. No matter that the kids don’t remember it happening–remembering the story is just as good! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Deb, and your families!

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