Ho, Ho, Huh?

My sister Marilyn loves Christmas more than any other holiday. When we were kids, she managed to make it last as long as possible by opening her presents at a ridiculously slow pace…especially for a child. Simultaneously, our parents, our three older brothers, and I would rip into our packages whooping and hollering across the room to thank whoever had gotten us just what we wanted. For us, it was all over in minutes.

While I would pick through the debris scattered throughout our living room hoping there might be one more package addressed to me, a neat tower of unwrapped presents surrounded Marilyn where she sat. She carefully pulled at taped corners, unfurling ribbons, and logging each gift into notebook so she would remember to write thank you notes later that afternoon.

Now as an adult with her own family, Marilyn still manages to savor every moment of Christmas. But her children didn’t inherit her patience, so it has taken a little extra effort to keep the magic in the season. Her kids count their presents — and those of everyone else in the family — to see how things stack up, literally and figuratively. A good bit of shaking goes on those last days of December, and the anticipation is downright maddening. When Marilyn’s three children started figuring out the contents of their presents before Christmas morning, my sister, a former elementary school teacher, drew on her creative side. She threw them a curve by not putting name tags on their gifts. Which presents were Robert’s and which ones were William’s or James’? They didn’t know until Christmas morning that their mother had allotted a different gift wrap to each person. Robert’s presents were the ones wrapped in snowmen print, William’s in stars, and James’ in reindeer.

The next year, a tag with a specific Christmas motif denoted each recipient’s gifts: Jingle bells, gingerbread men and candy canes. Again, no names on the tags, and only Mom and Dad knew the secret code. The year after that, gift tags marked with one of three numbers represented each child. The number matched the same number of letters in the recipients’s name: six for Robert, Seven for William and five for James.

Marilyn and her husband Kenny enjoyed eavesdropping on the discussions taking place around the Christmas tree. Using deductive reasoning, the boys would pick out packages they thought were something they asked for and then work backwards trying to come up with an answer to the code that would make that gift theirs. “James always tries to come up with something that makes the biggest package his,” chided Robert.

As the kids got a little older and their names got shorter (Robert became Rob, William preferred Will), Marilyn and Kenny came up with even trickier tactics. The boys thought they had cracked the code the year the tags were labeled Texas, Arkansas, and Kentucky, the states in which they lived when they started school. Not so fast. The state actually signified where they made their First Communion.

Another year, when a number was the only identifying symbol, the single digit represented the last numeral of the year each boy would graduate from high school. Marilyn said they probably would not have figured this one out, except she and Kenny included themselves that year.

My nephews are clever but they usually haven’t deciphered the system before it’s time to open the presents. And it’s certainly not my sister’s style to tell them. No, no no! She puts here teaching experience to work. On Christmas morning, she and Kenny take turns doling out clues until someone puzzles out the mystery.

This past year, the code was short but still cryptic: S1, S2 and S3. The family visited Universal Studios a few years ago where the boys mugged in front of cutouts of the Three Stooges. A souvenir photo hangs in the den. It laid the groundwork for S1— Stooge 1, S2 — Stooge 2, and S3 — Stooge 3.

What began as a means to keep the magic in the season has become something much more meaningful. Marilyn said, “This year it was really fun for me to watch all three boys at different times come in and sort through the packages. They made notes and put them in their pockets and wallets, and each one of them called another one to run an idea by him, their eyes twinkling as they spoke to each other.”

The boys are almost grown now. Rob is in college and living away from home. Will is a senior in high school and James is in the eighth grade. When Rob brought over his gifts for the family this year, he had devised his own coding system. Correlating the alphabet to numbers, he used the number of the first and last letter of each family member’s name. For example, And S for James became 10-19. Will was the first one to figure that one out. Rob said, “My favorite thing about it is that it is a bond that I share with my brothers.”

I have a feeling this family’s inimitable Christmas tradition is going to be carried on for a long, long time. Like mother, like sons.

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