Joy with No Surprises. Or, One Family’s Journey to a Merry Christmas.

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I am one of those rare adults who truly, genuinely and absolutely ADORES Christmas.

In fact, as I write this blog, I am happily dancing in my chair to the corniest Christmas songs and carols I can find. And as each new song comes through my headphones I actually smile. In this moment I am so happy.

Ever since I was a tiny tot, I have revelled in the twinkly lights, in the decorations, in the romance, in the magic, in the presents, in the giving, and in the receiving.

Christmas is, without doubt, my favourite time of year, and I am most content when I have a legitimate excuse to sway along to Bing Crosby crooning about white Christmases or Nat King Cole serenading me with chestnuts and open fires.

When I was little, I loved the adrenaline of the surprise of Christmas. But as I grew older, about the same time as I realised that Santa would no longer be the one filling my stocking, the suspense and surprise was almost unbearable.

Somehow, when I realised it was my parents who were buying my presents, I just HAD to know. The pressure of knowing the presents were hidden somewhere in my house, the anticipation of Christmas, was just too enormous for me.

So, every December, I would drag a dining chair up the steep flight of stairs to my parents’ bedroom, pull down all of the suitcases that were on the very top shelf of their wardrobe, and find the presents that were hidden behind and in them.

Once I knew for certain what I was getting, I could settle into enjoying the excitement of Christmas. It seemed to relieve the pressure that was building in my brain.

I always knew, intellectually, that I was “ruining the surprise”. The fact that I never told my parents indicates that I perceived this as intensely “naughty” behaviour. Certainly, I always felt guilty that I had – for yet another year – not been able to curb myself and Just Not Look.

But looking back I realise that, for me, it never felt like “ruining”, it just felt … necessary. And I enjoyed my favourite time of year more for not having big surprises.

Fast forward to Christmas a few years ago now, when my eldest was four turning five. He had provided me with a Christmas list, carefully dictated. One for my husband and me, one for his grandparents, one for Santa. They were not extensive, but they were painstakingly specific.

Except that “Santa” (who had been brought up in a house that eschewed things like gift vouchers and registries in favour of insightful and inventive gift-giving, and made an effort to buy “off list”) bought a different Lego Creator 3-in-1 set than my son had designated.

He was devastated.

It ruined his Christmas.

And, as a Mumma who prides herself on her connection with her children, and a perfectionist to boot, I was devastated for him. Seeing him so sad on Christmas Day … well, that broke my heart.

The following Christmas I swore would be different. This year, I thought, I would learn. No deviation from the list. Instead, I would just add to the list, things he hadn’t thought of, things he didn’t know about and so couldn’t know how much he wanted them or would enjoy them.

So, that year his gifts exactly mirrored his meticulously specific lists. But it was the additions – the surprises – that undid us that year.

They were just too much.

And yet again, he was devastated at Christmas, this time because he was totally and abjectly overwhelmed by “surprise”.

It has taken me a lifetime to learn that “surprise” is not necessarily beneficial or enjoyable for everyone. That for some – me included – surprise is an overwhelming burden on an otherwise delightful time of year.

And that’s OK.

For the past couple of years, my eldest son has given me an extensive Christmas list (this year’s is 24 pages, carefully organised, meticulously categorised and methodically prioritised).

We have an agreement. I promise him that he will only get things from his list from us, from his grandparents, and in his Santa sack.

I tell him how many things he will get from each category (this year the broad categories are Warhammer, Airfix and other modelling kits, and model trains).

He doesn’t know exactly what he is getting, or from whom that gift might come, but there is no risk of unanticipated gifts. And Christmas is an absolute delight for him now.

It isn’t the traditional surprise that we are encouraged to embrace at Christmas time, but it’s the way that he can embrace his Christmas, in his way, as enjoyable and pleasurable.

And that’s OK.

Because, for me, the purpose of gift-giving is not to overwhelm someone with a surprise, but to give them satisfaction and delight.

My littlest, who finds surprise even more confronting than his big brother, knows who will give him what presents, so he knows exactly what he is getting on Christmas morning.

And that’s OK.

Because, for me, the purpose of Christmas is to see my gorgeous boys thrilled and excited and happy. And my littlest is not happy when he is surprised by anything. So, surprise undermines his enjoyment of Christmas.

But for my middle boy, surprise is fundamental to his pleasure at Christmas.

His Christmas list is sketchy, short, with remarkably little thought put into it. Because he absolutely revels in the adrenaline of ripping off the wrapping and genuinely not knowing what will be in his hands.

And that’s OK.

Because, for me, the purpose of Christmas is to see his eyes light up and hear his squeals of absolute joy when I have got it right, when the gift is everything he hoped for.

So, this Christmas, put aside traditions and preconceived ideas of what Christmas “should” look like, and let your child lead.

Make new traditions. Have different traditions for different children: they’re not all the same, so why should they celebrate all the same?

Find new ways of being joyful.

And never let the pressure of expectation ruin the beauty of your family’s unique way of being together.

Because that’s what Christmas is really about.

Note: We know not everyone celebrates Christmas, but the principles remain the same for whatever holiday you celebrate, at whatever time of year, and even for birthdays!


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.

We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.

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