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We recently asked Lifehacker readers “What’s the Worst Christmas Gift You’ve Ever Received?” and the comments were...disheartening. I mean, some were funny (a toilet seat, a family member’s headshot, an unwrapped DVD of Footloose) but many brought a sting to the eye. Stories abounded of parents ostensibly trying to “surprise” their kids—by being royal, therapy-inducing assholes along the way.
You want a Sega Genesis? Ok, but you have to open several boxes of rocks first in front of the whole family, be asked whether you’ve been good, and cry—at age 6! Think you’re getting an Xbox 360? Here’s the box to get you excited, but it’s just filled with socks. Are you 8 years old, buying Christmas gifts for the first time, and want to be extra thoughtful by sending presents to your recently remarried Dad and new half-siblings? Well, be prepared to get a package a week later from them—containing all the gifts you sent, re-wrapped for your opening pleasure.
Parents, don’t do this. There is a difference between hiding the “big gift” in a closet to be found after all the smaller ones, and cruelly embarrassing and tricking your child into thinking all they’re getting is pebbles. It’s not cool to make a child shed tears and feel like shit on Christmas morning (or any morning, but especially not on one that carries so much significance in their young lives). With this in mind, here are some sweet ways you can surprise—not traumatize—your kids for the holiday.
Create a scavenger hunt
One way to make the main gift stand out is to send your kids on a treasure hunt. Write up a series of successive clues (bonus points if they rhyme), hide them around the house, and watch them race around excitedly to that video game console or brand new bike hidden in the garage.
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Leave traces of Santa
Depending on their age, leaving come convincing remnants of Father Christmas’s visit can spark joy in little eyes. In addition to making those cookies and milk disappear, have the kids leave carrots out for the reindeer (from which you’ll take large bites). Leave sleigh tracks in the lawn with a shovel or stick, dirty footprints in the fireplace, or a piece of red fabric stuck in the chimney, signaling he got stuck at some point during his hasty visit.
If you like to live dangerously, go the extra mile and take a selfie with Santa. Dress up in a Santa suit, snap a quick pic with them while they’re sleeping, print and leave it with a Merry Christmas note. (Best to only attempt with deep sleepers.)
Leave a reindeer behind
Consider leaving a plush reindeer “drop-out” behind, for them to wake up with. Attach a note that says something like, “Yay, Santa says I can stay with you!” or “I need a break from all that cold weather, can I stay here with you?” We bet your child will hang on to that special reindeer until they’re grown and can pass it along to their kids.
Spell out the gift in balloons
For an extra layer of suspense, consider spelling out the name of the gift one letter at a time in balloons. Write one letter on a piece of paper or index card, roll it up and insert it in the balloon before blowing it up. Have your kid(s) pop the balloons and unscramble the letters to figure out what the gift is. This works especially well for intangible gifts, like vacations.
Hide the big gift
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to splurge on a “big gift” for your kids, but don’t want to spoil the surprise as soon as they wake up, hide it someplace they won’t find without some prompting. Have them cycle through the smaller presents first, and when they think they’re done, ask them to fetch some cocoa from the pantry, or a box from the basement, where the day’s big-ticket item want will be waiting to amaze them.
Get them an heirloom ornament
While this may not dazzle a child when they’re 9, gifting them an annual personalized ornament will afford them a beautiful collection filled with childhood memories down the road. It could be geared to their interests of that year (a soccer ball, or Yoda figurine), a priceless moment (a framed picture of them whitewater rafting), or a simple, elegant silver ornament engraved with their name and the year. We’ve compiled more ideas here.
Go forth and fill children’s hearts with awe and wonder! (Not stories for their future therapist.)