A Christmas survival guide for toddlers

From sitting on Santa's knee to going on holidays, Stephen Corby outlines the do's and don'ts of celebrating Christmas with your toddler.

Holiday Season with family around the Christmas Tree

Sure, to you Santa Claus represents all the chubby-cheeked cheeriness that Christmas represents (because it’s only later in your parenting career that you’ll come to hate him, when he turns out to be the pivotal point of the breaking of trust between you and your child, as they discover, in horror, that you do lie to them, and have been all along), and obviously you can’t wait for that first overpriced print of your bouncing bubba on his knee. But please, someone, think of the children!

Getting your child through their first, possibly pants-soiling, experience of Santa-sitting is just one of the potential pitfalls of the festive season, which does turn out to be ever so slightly less filled with Christmas spirits when you’ve got tiny children.

Here is our helpful list of what to expect, and how to cope.

The “Get Out” Claus

To your toddler, there’s a good chance that Santa will represent just another stranger who they’ll be mildly terrified of, and one with a very suspicious looking, feeling and smelling beard at that. And why is he dressed like a giant piece of candy, can I lick him?

I remember being unwisely overly excited about our first trip to see Santa with our first born, and I seemed to assume that all children were just born with an inherent love of Christmas and all its slightly weird traditions.

The fact is, of course, that toddlers barely know what’s going on half the time, and if they haven’t seen something dozens of times over the past few weeks, it’s all just New And Scary Stuff.

The fact that Santa is a great man who can actually make your wildest dreams come true in what can only be described as an inexplicably magic fashion (this is one of those questions that comes up surprisingly early on, “but how does he get to all those houses, all around the world, in one night?” “Magic, son”) is something that you have to learn.

For the first couple of years he’s just a leering weirdo who sounds like he’s literally got a frog, or a piece of coal, in his throat, asking you questions that mean nothing.

As such, this encounter has a high chance of going pear shaped, and if you see it going wrong, you’ll really have to wonder why anyone would step up to do the Santa job every year.

All you can do is be prepared for the worst — a screaming, snot-flying tantrum when you attempt to get the prized photo — and use your very best distraction techniques to keep your toddler from actually noticing what’s going on, hopefully just long enough to snap a pic for your fridge.

Tantrum tamer: At least there’s plenty of help on hand, as the people who work with Santa Claus in his cosy cave are the crack troops of toddler handlers, and usually have presents, fluffy toys and squeaky things on hand to help you defuse the situation.

The Road Show

Unfortunately, for most people, Christmas is all about family, and this often means you’re expected to go and visit yours. That goes treble if you’ve got a new baby to show off. Compared to the hassle of hosting the rest of your relatives in your house for Christmas, which now far more closely resembles a bomb site, or a zombie apocalypse, than it did before your ball of joy exploded in there, going on a road trip might not be so bad.

And the fact is that sometimes, with some children, going for a drive works like a valium milkshake would for a grown-up, so you might get some nice quiet time with your partner, which would be a Christmas gift in itself.

If you have to fly somewhere for Christmas visits, of course, I can only say that I pity you. Flying with toddlers is like being thrown from a moving bus, naked, only more people stare at you with hatred in their eyes.

Driving smoothly and avoiding loud road-rage incidents is always well advised with a toddler in the back of your vehicle, of course, but at some stage, if the Christmas gods are not smiling upon you, you’re quite likely to experience a baby nuclear meltdown during a transport stage. On the plus side, for once, they’re tied down, and it’s not against the law.

Tantrum tamer: Loud music seems to help, but it’s probably best if it’s the kind of music they like rather than your favourite rock tracks. Hopefully not The Wiggles (we substituted The Beatles in my house, worked a charm). Pro-tip, though, whoever’s not driving should sit in the back with the capsule, just in case. The reach-over is a back-breaking manoeuvre.

Christmas parties

Sure, you might be crazy enough to have one at your house, in which case you may need a Bluetooth baby-monitor earpiece, but it’s probably more likely you might feel compelled to attend a couple this year, even though your friends must have noticed you’ve got a tiny terror on your hands.

Depending on your particular toddler’s patience levels, and how child-friendly the venue is, it’s probably wise to just arrive, and leave, early, so you’ve shown your face without the whole thing blowing up in it.

Some freakish parents have children who will sleep anywhere, through any kind of noise, and if you can arrange your nap times around a soiree, good luck to you.

What’s wiser, though, is to know when you’re beaten and either go to these things separately from your partner and child, or just withdraw from the party circuit for a couple of years. Adult fun and kids so rarely mix well.

Tantrum tamer: In a complete emergency, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll find something that looks like a present, or possibly even a real one, at a Christmas party. Give this to your child, watch their eyes widen and screaming subside, and let them open it. You can always replace it later.

So much to give

Okay, so I admit I got carried away, a bit, at our son’s first Christmas (and possibly the next five or six as well), and bought way too many presents. But I was excited; Christmas is all about kids, right? So, since the tinsel started to get a bit chintzy in your mind a decade or two ago and it ceased to be a day of breathless toy joy, this is is the Christmas you’ve been waiting for.

While my son, like most tiny kids, really loved the sight of the toys under the tree — no doubt helped by the excitement radiating off his goofy-faced father — he genuinely was just as rapt in the wrapping as he was in almost anything he found inside.

Wrapping paper is great stuff, and ripping it to bits seems to create moments of sheer ecstasy for little kids, but seriously, when they’re tiny, don’t worry too much about buying them things. I honestly wish I’d just wrapped up smaller balls of wrapping paper, instead of spending money on all that plastic and brightly painted tosh that my son barely played with anyway.

And let’s be honest, since they were born, how many toys have they received already?
Truly, this is the one age at which you can buy them clothes and they’ll be stoked. As long as you let them chew them.

Tantrum tamer: This is easy. If they don’t like a particular gift, or they start whining, just hand them another one. Or, better yet, let them open a Christmas cracker.

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