Before kids, I was adamant that Christmas shouldn't start until December - the second week would be just fine thank you very much. Jingle Bells on the airwaves any earlier than that just felt wrong. Christmas was about nights out as much as nights in, about finding the perfect sparkly dress for the office party, and panic shopping on the 24th for the last few bits. It was a perfectly nice time of year, but I couldn't understand all the fuss in the lead-up.
A decade later, I get it. And I'm in. Bring it on - all of it. The letters, the stockings, the advent calendar, the nativity play, even the shopping (kind of). I've learnt a lot about Christmas since having kids:
1. Sending letters to Santa is a big deal
Once upon a time, I thought this was just a nice childhood tradition carried forward through the generations. Now as I stand over my seven-year-old, waiting for her to write "Anna Sleigh" and not the sold out everywhere "Elsa Snow-Glow doll", I understand the importance of the letter. Santa needs to know as soon as possible what each child wants, and he doesn't have the admin team in place to manage last minutes changes of mind. I wait, watching my daughter with her pencil poised, biting back the urge to say "just write Anna Sleigh!" and I let her do it herself. She does. I whip it away, seal it in an envelope, and suggest we go straight to the post-box. Santa isn't taking any chances.
2. Starting Christmas in November might just make sense
Quite apart from the practical requirement to start early (especially if going to work and looking after kids is curtailing your ability to get to the shops) there's the FUN of the lead-up. While Christmas ads in September are annoying, come midnight on October 31st, I'm ready to embrace all things yuletide. Our enjoyment of any particular event doesn't last afterwards (a week after Christmas, we won't still have lingering happiness - we'll just be depressed about the extra half stone) so it's worth making the most of the lead-up. At least that's how I'm justifying shopping in November and playing Fairy Tale of New York on a loop.
3. Going to bed early on Christmas Eve has a purpose
What's the deal with getting kids to bed early on Christmas Eve I wondered? Why all the effort into convincing them on just this one day, when everything is back to normal 364 days a year? But then, realisation. Santa has a hell of a lot to do on Christmas Eve, and wide awake kids impede his plans significantly. Especially a child who keeps coming downstairs to beg her parents to go to bed, because she's afraid Santa won't come if they're still up. We may have overplayed this hand.
4. Some toys are a terrible idea
I remember being allowed to write one present each year on my letter to Santa, and that it could be anything I wanted. In reality, there was probably a little parental nudge here and there - "hmmm, Barbie Dream House you say - what about the lovely Sindy horse instead?"
And likewise today, much as I might have imagined letting my kids have free-choice, some toys are less desirable than others. One child wanted a bow and arrow this year, so I gently explained to her that she could only use it outdoors and it might rain on Christmas Day. Another wants a chocolate lolly-pop maker, because she thinks it means infinite supplies of lollies on tap. Her chocolate coin maker of two years ago is still hiding in the attic. A messy lesson learnt.
5. Nativity play clichés are true
TV and films tell us that school nativity plays take place during work hours; that parents get caught up in meetings and almost miss them, that kids fluff lines but it's OK because it's cute, and that mothers in the audience cry. Unlike some other parenting clichés in the movies (waters breaking in big gush anyone?) this one is true. Until last year, I never realised that sitting in a crowded, stuffy hall, holding a wriggling toddler, watching tiny four-year-olds on stage could be such an overwhelmingly gorgeous experience and could make me cry - even when the play is about aliens who land in Bethlehem on the night that Jesus is born.
6. There is nothing on TV on Christmas Eve
For our first Christmas Eve staying in, we looked forward to watching some great Christmas films and seasonal specials on TV. Browsing the TV guide revealed however that there was nothing on. We ended up watching American Gangster. I don't know why we thought that was a good idea - seasonal and joy-filled it was not. Last year was the same - the choice was Christmas with the Kranks or Midsomer Murders. But we had anticipated the TV wasteland that awaited us, and had borrowed Scrooged on DVD. We're learning. Though not at any great pace - we've nothing lined up for this year (suggestions welcome!)
7. Nobody told the kids about the lie-ins
Do your small kids get up at 6.30 or 7am every morning? Mine too. And it turns out they still do that on Christmas Day and on St. Stephen's Day and every day of the Christmas holidays. This has been happening in our house for seven years now, and it's still a shock to the system.
8. The magic
When Christmas was about the office party and the sparkly dress and the lazy mornings, it was good. But it was missing some magic, and with kids, the magic is back. I'm transported back to my own childhood - believing in something again. Watching them looking for a flash of light in the black sky. Leaving out a carrot and a cookie, in just the right spot. The flurry to bed, the anxious checking of time. Hearing sleigh bells while trying to sleep; seeing a blur of red through the keyhole. The morning pitter-patter, the whispers. The descent down the stairs, and hesitant turning of door-handle. What if he's sill there? He's not! But he was here - there's no doubting that. It's magic.
And that's mostly what I've learnt about Christmas since having children - there's are good reasons behind the traditions, it really is all about the kids, and the magic is well and truly back. Happy Christmas!