Merriment’s agenda: Setting expectations for Christmas day

The following is a guest post written by Cari Stone of Thoughts Interrupted.

A note from Jamie: As the countdown for Christmas begins, I hope you can glean some helpful tips from this repost. It originally published on December 21, 2011.

I finally had enough. Somewhere between untangling the brand new battery operated car out of my daughter’s hair and consuming one too many cookies baked by my diabetic second cousin, I knew much of what I’d come to accept about Christmas Day needed to change.

Amidst the merriment I’d forgotten a key piece of our family’s rhythm – the invaluable practice of establishing expectations.

As homeschoolers we’re fairly adept at setting the stage in our regular lives. Well communicated expectations offer both structure and fluidity to our days – an established paradigm to explore within. Everyone, it seems, can breathe easier when our expressed hopes and desires are on the table.

Why then do we tend to sidestep this discipline in the name of Christmas break? The end results (misbehaving children, one too many trips to the dessert table or missed opportunities on the relational front) are often laced with regret.

Let this year be different.

Somewhere between stuffing stockings and baking that final pie take a moment to consider the value that shared expectations can bring to this year’s celebration.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1.  A Team Approach

My husband and I fully embrace the notion of opposites attracting. It makes for an interesting ride. It can also spell disaster if we forgo those essential conversations about how we envision things going.

Take a few minutes to talk things over with your spouse. Make sure you understand what the other is hoping to experience come Christmas morning. Together you have the opportunity to set an incredible tone.

2.  Tour Guide

Next, invite your kids into the conversation. Provide them with a vision for the day before it actually unfolds.

Will you be traveling to family or will they be coming your way? What time will the main meal be served? How might the kids help throughout the day?

Essentially you’re the acting tour guide for the festivities at hand. Have fun and don’t shy away from voicing what needs to happen.

Remember, kids crave both inclusion and a plan.

Casting a vision is key. It also has tremendous potential to cut down on the number of times you’re asked when they can open their presents.

3.  Present Time

Few things thrill kids more this time of year than the magic and wonder of Christmas morning. Gifts are so much fun. They can also leave the smallest in the bunch over stimulated and seemingly void of any and all manners without some helpful input along the way.

Take a moment to bridge the subject of present time. Help your kids make the connection that gift giving involves time, thoughtfulness and generosity.

The conversation can then naturally move towards what’s about to take place (most likely, lots of receiving).Don’t be afraid to establish some ground rules. In our house we’ve opted to forgo the free-for-all ripping through packages approach – no magic has been lost because of this.

In its place we ask that our girls take turns opening gifts. This gives them the chance to acknowledge who the present is from (whether or not that person is there) and to say thank you to those who are in a sincere (looking them in the eyes) sort of way.

Of course this takes practice. Two year-old’s aren’t known for fine-tuned enunciation and eye contact.

Still, over time we’ve witnessed that wonder and gratitude can in fact share the same space.

4.  Let’s Eat

Christmas Day and overeating often feel both synonymous and unchangeable. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Establishing expectations before you and your family ever set eyes (and noses and mouths) on this year’s holiday fare can make all the difference.

While doing so can feel a bit Grinch-like (it is only one day after all) consider for a moment the alternative. I have yet to meet a child who remains pleasant after consuming several portions of dessert or handfuls of red and green M&Ms. Likewise, there seems to be a direct correlation between parental engagement and patience (or lack thereof) and that third portion of mashed potatoes.

That’s really what it comes down to. Christmas cuisine is fabulous; it is also rich and filling and a potential joy robber if we don’t exercise restraint.

Enjoy your meal. Encourage your kids to do the same.

And begin the day with a plan that will leave everyone feeling their best.

How have expectations (or a lack there of) helped or hindered your holiday season?


  1. We don’t take a vacation leading up to the holiday. It IS a recipe for disaster. We need our days to be as normal as possible. Also, we learning helps fill the days with something other than just anticipation.

    Preparing my son for what is to come in the month, week, and next day is very important. Why should I be the only one with that information? I am calmer because I know what’s happening in my world. He is the same. To be told an hour before something really makes him upset. He likes to be prepared just as I like to be prepared.

    Holidays can be good, special, but normal feeling too.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Melissa. It sounds as though you have come to a great place of mutual respect with your son – understanding that like you, he does best with some lead time.

      I hope that your holiday strikes that beautiful balance between the special and the normal aspects of life.

      Cari’s latest post: Merriment’s Agenda

  2. Thank you! I do not naturally prepare my kids or let them in on my plans. I know it makes them feel better, but I just don’t think to do it. I am going to try these steps. I’ll bet they will appreciate it!

  3. Thanks for reading Jennifer.

    I hope that these steps enhance your holiday in some small way.

    Take care.
    Cari’s latest post: Merriment’s Agenda

  4. Now if life would just read this great article and cooperate! 8)

  5. Thanks for the reminders! We do all of these, but have also been known to get stuck in the “but this is all a big exception so just roll with it” mindset, which definitely does NOT help my kids!

    The only thing I’d add would be to build in mini-breaks for the kids to reduce their excess energy and over-stimulation. After opening presents, our family takes a walk “to look at holiday decorations.” After brunch (for which my sister is joining us) we watch a 45 minute Christmas movie. Once our friends and family arrive at 3pm for dinner, we have an outdoor scavenger hunt and the sports games on the Wii set up, dinner is then at 5.

    Merry Christmas!
    MrsH’s latest post: grieving

  6. If we are eating with a large family get together I tell my children they can pick 1 dessert and then 1 more different kind. It’s more than they usually get, but not so much that it makes them crazy or grumpy.

    If we are just eating at home with our direct family I only serve one dessert or if we have choices they only get to choose one.
    Suanna’s latest post: Playing Ponies with Daddy

  7. Your suggestions are great. Luckily it will be just the four of us this Christmas (my husband, two boys and me), so that will help the day be more normal in terms of scheduling. We’re going to have a special meal but not a big meal at our normal dinnertime. And it definitely helps if I tell my five-year-old the night before that we’ll open presents AFTER breakfast!
    shelli : mamaofletters’s latest post: December & Christmas Activities with Small Children

    • Thanks for your feedback.

      Some of my favorite holidays are those spent with our immediate family. It can often take the pressure off while also still feeling so special.

      I hope you four have a wonderful weekend.

      Cari’s latest post: Merriment’s Agenda

  8. We really encourage the family to exercise common sense and moderation in gift giving. We let the little guy start opening a gift a day on solstice and save a few for the next few days after the holiday so we can alleviate some of the over stimulation. helps with the let down too. we always let him know exactly when the next days gift will be the last for awhile.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts Mrs. H.

    I love the idea of mini-breaks – I think I will add this one to the mix this year in our house as well.

    Wishing your family a season of grace and peace.


    P.S. I stopped by your blog and read your latest post on grieving. Your honesty and perspective are gifts to us all – and to your precious children in particular.
    Cari’s latest post: Merriment’s Agenda

  10. This is one of those ‘so obvious and yet SO easy to forget’ things.

    I know I feel better when I know what’s going on, and I know my children do too, (even though they are really little). Keeping the rhythm to the day is the important thing. I need to think about how to make that accessible on days that are unusual (like christmas day!)

    thanks for this – lots of good stuff to think about.
    katieh’s latest post: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Katieh.

    Isn’t it funny how the most “obvious” things are sometimes the very hardest to keep in the forefront of our hearts/minds?

    I hope that your family has a blessed holiday weekend.

    Cari’s latest post: Merriment’s Agenda

  12. Cari, as always I love reading what you write! We have implemented many of the ideas you mention and they have helped so much! Thanks for your wisdom!

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with everything mentioned here; lots of great ideas for avoiding common Christmas pitfalls. If I may add one tip {which hopefully hasn’t already been mentioned elsewhere in the comments – because I admit to not reading them before posting my own… Sorry}, it would be that it is also important to teach our kids to “go with the flow”, especially when it comes to gatherings where the specific plans {like when is dinner? and when will presents be opened?} and the menu is unknown prior to arriving. I know at least one of our annual get-togethers is this way: we show up and just follow the hostess’ lead. It is at these times that we can take advantage of the teachable moment for patience.
    Alana @ The Bliss Diaries’s latest post: Merry Christmas + Be Back Soon!

  14. Thank you for these timely reminders. You are right, we try to do many of these steps in every day life, but amongst the chaos of the holidays our family rythem gets pushed to the side so easily. I can see we need to re-double our efforts and restore some peace to our family celebrations…especially when it comes to eating 🙂
    Rita’s latest post: 9+ Homemade Stocking Stuffer Ideas (Repost)

  15. I have always avoided different expectations that the children may have by outlining in detail ahead of time what they order of events will be. I even do this as we are walking out the door to go run some errands in town, on our way to church on a Sunday, and at the start of every event in our lives.

    I find this brings the children great security, and they have learned to ask “What’s the Plan?” even before I get to tell them sometimes. Surprises and the unexpected can be quite stressful for a child, and what may seem obvious to us, is unsettling to them if they don’t know what to expect.

    God bless you as you abide in Him!
    Tehila’s latest post: 7 Little-Known Factors That Could Get You Arrested

  16. I keep the bar low. Our goal is to spend time together reading Christmas books, listening to and singing carols, watching classic holiday shows together, and making dilapidated looking gingerbread houses and people. My hope is that all the littles are healthy on the big day and that we get to enjoy laughs and pie with our extended family 🙂
    Cait @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: Study Christmas Carols with SQUILT

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