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Toddler's First "Real" Christmas

Your Toddler’s First “Real” Christmas

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I have a somewhat seasonally appropriate question for you (since Halloween is over the only thing we could possibly be thinking of now is Christmas, right?)

My daughter will have just turned 2.5 when Christmas day rolls around (she is exactly 1 year younger than your youngest, Ike!) so I think this is the first year she’ll really understand what’s going on around her. Last year she was thrilled to eat Christmas cookies and get fun new toys, but really didn’t get the bigger picture. She doesn’t know anything about Christmas or what is to come– at this point she doesn’t even know who Santa is.

Basically, my question is: What is the best way to introduce everything to her? My husband and I are very subdued and practical people. While we do celebrate holidays, we tend not to make big deals out of them. We live modestly and certainly within our means. So we don’t want to go overboard with this Christmas stuff, but we also don’t want to be Grinches about the whole thing. We want to be sure she has fun and enjoys the holiday, but we don’t want to start off on the wrong foot with focusing only on presents or overdoing the special events etc.

Do you have any age-appropriate tips to get my daughter excited about and involved in her first real Christmas, without overemphasizing the hectic, crazy, and materialistic parts?


Honestly, there’s really no need to overthink this one, or to suddenly CHANGE ALL THE THINGS about the way you like to celebrate holidays. Keep doing Christmas the way you do Christmas. It sounds just lovely, honestly. Cookies, some pretty decorations, and a couple presents — what’s better than that?  At 2.5 years old, she’ll still likely be too young to really remember anything specific about this Christmas, so think of it more as building a gentle foundation of nice fuzzy-but-vague happy-time memories for next year, when she’ll see a Christmas tree and suddenly start talking about cookies or having a fire in the fireplace, so you know she’s starting to connect the dots.

That’s not to say that having a child means NO NEW TRADITIONS or anything. But you can still keep it simple. A new set of Christmas jammies to open on Christmas Eve, followed by a holiday TV special like Olive the Reindeer or Charlie Brown, or just playing some holiday music and reading a special Christmas book at bedtime. She’s probably too little to help with tree decorating, but she can help pick a tree out, either at a lot or a farm. Make it a fun outing, even if the whole purpose of it goes over her head at the time. Bake cookies and let her pour in the chocolate chips or “decorate” some sugar cookies. (They will be the ugliest, messiest, most precious cookies you will see. Take a million pictures!)

We started the Mall Santa Photo tradition right from the very first Christmas, first as kind of a joke (tiny confused bored-looking baby + cheesy Mall Santa = hilarious), and then it sort of…stuck. Now we do it every year and the kids genuinely look forward to it, and I admit I love looking through our collection of goofy photos every year and seeing how much the boys have grown. Some kids are (justifiably) weirded out or scared of Mall Santas, though, so again, don’t feel pressured to drag her to GO SEE SANTA!!! if you’d rather not. Read her books about him instead, if you’d like the Santa story to be part of her Christmas at some point.

My almost 3.5 year old STILL doesn’t know who Santa is, though, if you ask him. He was your daughter’s age last year and was still mostly confused about a lot of what was going on. He loved our Christmas tree, the cookies, and dancing to a musical Charlie Brown tree over and over and over. That was really enough for him. I’m looking forward to this year, just to see what exactly he’ll remember or if it’ll be all new, all over again.

We bought him exactly one present for Christmas morning (besides some trinkets and treats in his stocking), but thanks to friends and relatives his bounty under the tree was still totally ridiculous for a small toddler. So don’t worry about being grinches if you stick to just a small number of presents. Two years old = two presents, plus a stocking is more than enough. Ike got tired of opening gifts last year so I let his older brothers open them for him. Let your daughter take a break as well, or open gifts slowly, one at a time, rather than a big videotaped frenzy where she’s not allowed to play with or even look at one present for very long before you’re egging her on to open the next one. (I admit we’ve done this. Then I watch the video like, “CALM DOWN CRAZY PEOPLE. GIVE THE POOR KID A MINUTE.”)

One final tradition to consider: Taking your daughter to a toy store to buy a toy for Toys for Tots or an Angel Tree every year. Do it this year just because it’s a kind thing to do, and each year she’ll slowly come to understand what you’re doing, and hopefully it will temper the GIFTS GIFTS GIFTS ME ME ME stuff with a little real-world experience in giving without the expectation of getting anything in return.

More Holiday Reads

Published November 14, 2014. Last updated December 12, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    November 14, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Another tradition for kids are Advent Calendars. Some are secular and others are religious and can be used to tell the Nativity story.

  • E Canfield

    November 14, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    My sibs and I would help make special Christmas decorations. Paper chains, painting plain tree ornaments, coating something in glitter, and so forth. One year we baked these cookie like things really hard and decorated them.

  • Bethany

    November 14, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    We don’t do Santa in our family. (Some kids might be fine with eventually finding out the truth, but I was the kid who would think, “What else have Mom and Dad been lying to me about?”)

    I saw a nice twist on the Elf on the Shelf thing recently – instead of making it about the Elf reporting the kids’ behavior to Santa (seriously, people?!), the elf has a new idea every day of some kindness to show toward others (or the kid). Some ideas: “Let’s bake cookies for our neighbors,” “You did a good job picking up your toys yesterday,” “How about we take some toys to kids who don’t have any,” “Let’s make thank you cards for police officers,” etc.

    • Danielle

      November 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      Bethany and I seem to be of similar parenting minds. We don’t “do Santa” in the sense that he’s an actual mythical being who magically makes presents appear on Christmas morning (and we definitely get uncomfortable with the whole “sees you when you’re sleeping”/Elf on the Shelf thing). We talk about “being Santa for” others, both others in the family and others who need help to have a Christmas. I’ll take our son shopping for his dad and baby sister, and we’ll talk about being Santa for them and his dad will take him out to be Santa for me. We’ll also get an Angel Tree or Be Santa for a Senior tag and be Santa for that family.

    • Hillary

      November 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Wow, I love these ideas! We also don’t do Santa. Thanks for these suggestions!

  • Caroline

    November 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    2.5 is still really, really little. It’s unlikely it’ll mean a vast amount, so as Amy suggests, just do the normal stuff you’d generally do, a couple of cool little gifts and leave it at that. I promise that in years to come you will have plenty of time to get more lavish if you want to. We have 3 kids, born September, October and November… we make a big fuss of birthdays, with the ”big” gift and party and whatever, and Christmas is a bit more modest. Yes, of course they get a nice gift each and some odds and ends in their stockings, but otherwise, that’s it apart from plenty of nice food. We always donate 3 gifts to the Santa’s Shoebox Project for underprivileged kids (here in South Africa there is no shortage of kids in desperate poverty. One item that gets included in the gift pack is… soap. Apparently this is very exciting. I know, It breaks my heart), anyway, this gets done late October. At any rate, she is still very little, so helping decorate a tree and ”helping” bake will be a big thrill for her, bless her heart!

  • Maggie

    November 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    My advice would be to keep it simple and small. Don’t start anything you don’t want to keep up year after year, and try to make at least one aspect of Christmas about giving instead of getting. We do the 4 gifts system with our kids, (something to wear, something to read, something they want, and something they need) and none are big ticket items. Some of our favorite traditions are cookie baking, going for a drive one night at bedtime to look at Christmas lights, donating a gift each to a local toy drive, and a special Christmas eve meal.

  • Rachel

    November 15, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    My earliest memories of Christmas before age 7-8 are just hazy recollection of things like lots of cookies, relatives visiting, decorating the tree, and playing with wrapping paper. I’d just focus on things like that and maybe read a few classic Christmas children’s books, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There are also some cartoon Christmas specials to watch, like the Charlie Brown one.

  • April

    November 15, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    My daughter turned 2 in September. She is obsessed with holidays. There is a holiday section of books at our local library and we pick out books and I talk with her about how our traditions are the same or different as the families in the books. Also, we live far from relatives and she has heard for months that we will visit her grandparents who we Skype with at Christmas. So, she has her eyes peeled for signs that it’s coming and yells Santa! or Christmas! At every evergreen tree in town. Lately I have been talking about how Thanksgiving comes first even though stores have Christmasy things. I don’t think two is too young. Get some holiday books and discuss them with your child. Like, “this is a Christmas tree. Do you know what that is? It’s a special tree with lights on it that makes people feel happier when it’s Christmastime and it starts to gets cold outside.”

  • Tasterspoon

    November 18, 2014 at 12:53 am

    I like what someone previous said about just creating a sensory impression of the season rather than worrying about checking any particular boxes. A two year old has zero expectations – that should be incredibly freeing! You can ramp it up later – if you want.

    On the other hand, I don’t think you’re locking yourself into any potential ‘tradition’ if there IS something you want to try this year. You could do gingerbread cookies one year; decorate a house another. Have an apple cider tea party or just simmer some cinnamon and cloves on the stove for the smell. Give her a jingle bell to shake every time the song comes on the radio; have music on while you decorate the tree. Decide what Christmas means to you, Christ’s birth, family, Season of Giving, and stick to it.

    I definitely try to keep the emphasis on activities rather than stuff. So we don’t put a bunch of presents under the tree to tempt peeking – gifts from distant family stay in their brown mailing boxes till just before; we avoid malls and skip commercials. But if you end up having a kid who “can hardly stand the wait” and is dying to unwrap something my eldest (since age 2) has LOVED the tradition of wrapping up 24 Christmas-themed books (they’re really easy and cheap to come by at thrift stores, library book sales, etc.) and letting her choose and unwrap one every night in December. (I rewrap the same books each year and re-use wrapping paper and use newspaper, etc. as much as possible.)

    My parents never did the letter to Santa or “tell Santa what you want” thing and I don’t want to encourage begging or unreasonable expectations. But I like the idea of something fun and substantial appearing under the tree on Christmas morning. So from the beginning (my eldest is 4) Santa has brought things for all three kids to share, like a train set or magnetic tiles and then some minor, individual presents in stockings. (Since the younger kids are still growing into toys this mostly just sets the expectation up front regarding ownership and use.) Mom and Dad give books and clothes.

    I want to start doing kid-made ornaments each year but haven’t gotten my act together yet.

  • Holly W.

    November 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    I love Amy’s suggestion about doing something hands-on to make the holiday about giving. And I recommend Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child – you fill a shoebox with gifts and then can find out where it is delivered overseas – so fun 🙂

  • Joanie

    November 20, 2014 at 10:55 am

    We’ve started doing “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read” a few years ago.