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How to Actually Enjoy the Holidays With a Toddler

Photograph by Serge Bielanko Private

This time of year can go off the rails quickly for parents of a toddler. Events stacked one after the other, never-ending gift pressure, ornaments being perpetually ripped off the tree by tiny hands that simply cannot resist a million shiny things dangling in front of their eyes. Plus, winter snot—and A LOT of it. It's no wonder that parents of little kids often feel anything but festive or jolly in the middle of it all.

In this bustling age of digital chaos and real-life schedules that never quit, many of us often think about slowing down and really concentrating on what truly matters, but very few of us ever go the distance.

We say we love the family time. But we spend more hours in malls and stores than we do at home.

We say we love watching our kids' eyes light up at the whole pageantry of Santa Claus. But we earmark only an hour or two to stand in an assembly line to see him for one minute.

We say we don't want to make the holidays about money or presents. But we buy our kids way too much because we've trained ourselves to believe that that is what we must do in order to make this time of year special.

But it doesn't have to be that way. It isn't easy—we've been brainwashed for years. Yet it's possible. So look, that's why I've come up with three tips (or, as I like to call them, mental hacks) to help struggling December parents to slow down and actually enjoy the most wonderful time of the year. Follow me down into a new kind of holiday.

1. Santa Claus Is Everything

If you don't believe in Santa Claus and you tell your toddler there is no Santa, well, that's on you. I'm not here to try and convince you otherwise. But for me, I can state with absolute certainty that I believe that pushing the Santa saga on your kids when they're 3 and 4, right when their tiny brains are firing up all kinds of connections and ideas, is one of the very best things that ever happened to me in my life.

I'm dead serious.

My belief in Santa and my single mom's tireless efforts to talk about him and show me and my younger brother our yearly letter from him and the mystique of a jolly fat man who was somewhere far away thinking good things about us was the best present anyone ever gave me.

These days, I do the same for my kids. I talk about Santa all the time. ALL the time. I make a lot of it up as I go. His story intertwines with mine and the lives I hope my three kids will live someday. By bringing him into our world each year at this time, we all enter, together, a fantastical parallel dimension of folklore and invention that stays with you forever. I just know it does.

2. Gifts Are Cool, but Also Dumb

They've got us right where they want us. You know that, right? The retailers and the giants of selling you overpriced hunks of useless crap have got us by the reindeer kahunas.

And look, here's the thing: Presents are fun. They just are. We all love getting them. And even giving them. We get off on making someone happy. And there's not a damn thing wrong with that. We could use a little more of that spirit.

At the same time though, our toddlers are at the perfect age to learn that gifts don't have to be big and fancy. Kids that age are so awesome for a million reasons, but one of the coolest reasons is because they have this sensational built-in radar for bulllsh*t gifts. They really do!

Toddlers like a scrunched-up ball of wrapping paper almost as much as they like some $70 play set that lights up and screeches and annoys the crap out of us.

These days won't last forever.

I know, I know. Kids need toys and they need to have some good things that they can use to entertain themselves and learn from and all of that. I'm down. I'm also guilty. I buy too much every year. Half the stuff never gets used again after New Year's. This year, I'm trying to help coax my kids towards making stuff for Grammy and Uncle Dave instead.

"Let's make cards with crayons and typing paper!"

"Let's make cookies and give them as presents!"

"Let's write a list to Santa and ask for ingredients for lasagna instead of expensive sh*t!!!"

Yeah, I know. It's a long shot. But guess what? It's kind of working so far. The whole notion of us creating gifts for people is steering them towards leaner and less confused wish lists themselves. Don't get me wrong, my daughter still wants some kind of $100 robot dog thing too. But she is asking for cookbooks this year, as well. Cookbooks! In 2017! I consider that a win for Dad and for all mankind. If we start them out as toddlers making gifts and craving slightly different presents for themselves, who knows what that will mean, right? But it can't end up being a bad thing.

3. Stare at the Tree, Listen to the Music

Do it. Be together as much as you can. Remember all the families that aren't together, and that never will be together on this planet again. Think about how lucky you are. Even though life is a pain in the ass and money sucks, we're still pretty damn lucky, huh? Our kids are beautiful. They're imperfect, they're gross and can be wildly cruel. But they're learning. And they're lovely. And when they're toddlers, we're in the midst of a thing we will never have again with them.

Park the car. Skip the world for a night or three. Plug in the lights on the tree. Pour a bowl of snacks. Turn on some holiday tunes. And just sit there, all of you, together on the couch.

A toddler will probably bounce around. But after a while, they'll snuggle for at least a few minutes. If you time it right at the end of the day, and you have a little wine as you watch them messing with the ornaments/breaking stuff you were hoping to keep, you might just stumble into the true heart of the holidays, my friend. The mild chaos of a family winding down at the end of the day. "Silver Bells" playing. Things that need to be done not getting done and good for you for pushing them down.

These days won't last forever. And there are no gift receipts for love or magic.

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