The Year I Learned That Christmas Doesn't Have to Come From a Store

One of our most cherished family traditions came about because of a turtle. There I was, desperately searching for a spectacular gift that would create an unforgettable Christmas morning for my three boys, and I was really digging deep. I sought opinions about my turtle idea on Facebook and immediately realized I was on the wrong path. Apparently turtles smell. Who knew? Almost everyone, actually. 

The reason I was searching for a creative Christmas gift wasn’t because my kids already have “everything.” But there was nothing super special that they wanted or needed — or that I deemed worthy of being wanted or needed. I wanted to find a better way to spend Christmas money. 

I’m sure I am among a large cohort of parents who have rolled their eyes at items on the “list.” Drawing on past experience, I could easily discern that an item written down on a whim would be shoved aside by Boxing Day. But I yearned for that one surprise that they would always remember.  

So as my friends asked if I was out of my turtle-loving mind, I started to think about other options for the quintessential big gift. 


The Grinch was right on. And, segueing character franchises, that’s exactly where my mind went … to Mickey Mouse. It had been several years since we’d visited the Mouse House, and my kids were finally at the ages (and requisite heights) to enjoy it all. Furthermore, our last visit had been during spring break when it was a madhouse. Taking a trip to Disneyland during off-peak-season seemed awfully appealing. And that’s when it hit me: Why not plan a late-January trip and announce it on Christmas morning? 

Now some parents love to execute a true surprise, where they wake their kids up and whisk them to the airport to fly off to a mystery destination. But for me — and them — part of the fun of travel is the anticipation. So that’s why a “ta-da” moment seemed just the ticket.  

As I booked the trip, I realized our package came with a phone call from Goofy, the ideal way to share the news. After we’d demolished our stockings and sat down to our blueberry French toast, the phone rang. I put it on speaker and immediately Goofy’s familiar chuckle filled the kitchen.  

The kids were mystified at first, and then grins spread over their faces as it dawned on them what was going on. They were going to Disneyland! Happy mayhem ensued, and I realized my big reveal had been a big success. 


Now, every year our big Christmas gift is an annual trip. I’ve chosen a wide variety of adventures over the years so no one is ever sure what crazy location we’re visiting next — or what strategy I’ll use to reveal it Christmas morning. 

My crew has gone on a scavenger hunt around the house that led to flip-flops and beach towels the year we headed to Cabo San Lucas for spring break. They each opened up a clue (a tea bag, a can of beans and a baseball) to guess we were going to Boston for summer sightseeing and baseball. They unscrambled letters that spelled out “Alaskan summer cruise.”  

One year they each got a different adventure: My oldest was headed to baseball spring training (baseball cards and sunscreen); my youngest was going to see his favorite football team in the Rose Bowl (a new jersey); and my middle one was going to New York as an extension of his middle school debate team’s visit to D.C. (a big apple in a bag — he was literally never going to guess). 

The truth is we probably would have gone on these vacations anyway, since these sojourns together are among our best memories. But I’m all for elevating any experience into something as exciting as it can be. That’s why I’ve had fun capturing their attention with a new and creative reveal on Christmas morning, rather than casually announcing the location at a random moment.  

And I can’t help but feel a little satisfied when I think of the money, landfill space and hours I’ve saved by avoiding unnecessary mall shopping. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, 2018 holiday sales are expected to rise to $720.89 billion. That’s a lot of socks, plastic dinosaurs and plush toys, many of which are likely purchased merely so the recipient has something to open, just to be relegated to a drawer or toy box. 

Instead, we have the fun of discovering a gift on Christmas that we can all enjoy together — the gift of priceless memories that keeps on giving.  

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