A Jolly Toddler Holiday – 3 Ways To Enrich The Experience

Hi Janet,

My son is 28 months, and this is the first year I think he’ll have a lot of questions about Christmas.  My parents are already asking what Santa should bring him, and it’s prompted me to think about how I might position this mythical character in a developmentally appropriate way that embraces the spirit of Santa, doesn’t feel like I’m lying to him or that I will have to burst his bubble later!  I’d also love to know if you know of any books that illustrate what you recommend.  He’s SO into books lately, and we found a very cute book about Halloween that I think really helped him and us. 

I’d love to know your thoughts on this!

Many thanks and keep up the amazing work!


Thanks, Mary!

I would frame Santa as a magical, mythical character. Yes, as the legend goes, Santa lives at the North Pole, drives a sleigh with flying reindeer and sometimes brings gifts, but who can be sure? No one’s ever seen him, and we never know for certain if he’ll come. Those bearded guys in the mall are just nice men pretending (or Santa’s helpers). And you don’t have to sit on Santa’s lap if you don’t want to.

Keeping Santa a fluid, evolving fantasy is more honest and less scary for toddlers than the reality of a home invader jumping down the chimney in the middle of the night in big black boots. (One of my nephews was terrified of the big guy he called “Ho Ho”.)

Others might disagree, but I don’t believe encouraging fantasy and holiday magic conflicts with an honest relationship with our children. I don’t remember ever feeling my “bubble burst” as a child, only more appreciation for my parents’ generosity. I believe my older children, now 18 and 13, had a similar “transition”, and my 9 year old just made a letter for Santa. None of them has ever questioned details or asked for proof. Maybe they’re too smart for that.  Why question magic, joy and gifts?

Share your memorable childhood experiences. Some of my favorites are the silly things that happened while caroling every Christmas Eve with the neighborhood children; or the way, in our eager anticipation of  Christmas day, we’d push the walls inside our house to make the world turn faster (now I’m pushing in the opposite direction to make it slow down).  Holidays are an opportunity to share what we loved with our children, relive memories and make new traditions, the richest of which will be the ones created together spontaneously.

For Christians, Jesus’ birth is the magical story to share, and it was at least as captivating for my toddlers as the Santa story, if not more so. They loved the music (and still do), sang along with the hymns and played angels and manger animals in the church pageant. For us, making the effort to focus on the true meaning of the Christmas holiday was important and provided balance for all the Santa festivities.

Here are a few more thoughts about enriching the holiday experience (or any experience) for toddlers:

Great expectations.

I’m so glad you brought up books.  Reading books and telling stories are terrific ways to involve our toddlers in new events and occasions, because they help them know what to expect. If there’s one thing Girl Scouts and toddlers have in common it’s the wish to be prepared, since through a toddler’s eyes the world is new and thrilling, but also a little overwhelming. In a big, mysterious world full of unknowns, toddlers like to know. Prepped for events with books and our detailed descriptions, they can feel a little on top of things and embrace experiences more fully.

So, I would definitely show your son books and tell him all about your plans around Christmas. My favorite Santa books are classics that capture the Christmas spirit:

The Night Before Christmas

The Polar Express

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Active involvement:

Toddlers want to do things themselves, and when we slow down and prioritize their active participation, the holidays can belong to them, too. This means keeping an eye out for things toddlers can do, or at least try to do. It means letting go of results and preconceived notions, allowing all the ornaments to be clumped in a foot long section at the bottom of the tree, not minding it when grandma hears all about her new bedroom slippers beforehand (because our toddler helped us wrap them), realizing that other things we thought mattered really don’t.  And don’t even bother asking a child under the age of 10 not to throw tinsel.

Toddlers can place money in the Salvation Army tin and drop gifts into the Toys for Tots bins (although it’s easier if it’s not a toy they would like.) Toddlers can also help come up with gift ideas for people they know…and will get a kick out of seeing them opened.

Toddlers love to make stuff. We’re blessed to have lots of beautiful ornaments, including expensive gifts and family heirlooms, but my all time favorite is one my daughter made at preschool when she’d just turned 3 (See photo). I had already been planning to share about it here, and then while we were all decorating the tree recently, I was surprised to hear her exclaim, “It survived another year!” as she hung it on a low branch. 15 years later, I guess it’s still special to her, too. ornament jolly toddler holiday

Here are the instructions c/o Little River School:

  • Large piece of aluminum foil that the children can bunch up themselves, squeeze and squeeze and shape into the ball.
  • A bowl of Elmer’s glue
  • A paint brush
  • Pipe cleaner
  • Dip brush into glue and paint the entire ball.
  • Sprinkle glitter or sequins. (Sometimes people have aversion to glitter, but if the children are carefully supervised they will not inhale or harm themselves, depending on the age of the children.)     
  • They can use glitter or sequins of their choice and then allow it to dry.
  • The pipe cleaner hook is placed through the top of the foil.
  • Hook to tree.

Keep it simple.

As you’ve probably already noticed, toddlers play longer with simple toys that they can be creative with and actively explore. (I share specific recommendations HERE.) A set of blocks, a basket of balls, a box of stones (but not ones they can choke on), even a lump of coal can be just as intriguing as an electric train set.  And the gift they treasure most is the attention of their loved ones.

Merry Christmas, Mary!


P.S. Play music. Sing and dance.  A lot.

Do you have favorite holiday books, music, ideas for toddlers? Please share!

(Thumbnail photo by r.nial.bradshaw on Flickr)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you so much, Janet! As always, insightful, thoughtful, simple, powerful and inspiring. I so appreciate your insights and look forward to incorporating some of your wonderful suggestions. Music and dancing, check and check ; ) Mary

    1. Mary, thank you! And thanks for allowing me to post your question. Sorry this was a little late in coming… Hope you have a lovely holiday with your wonderful boy!

  2. elizabeth shahbazi says:

    Hi Janet. Well done and sweetly written. Hannukah book LATKES and APPLESAUCE by FRAN MANUSHKIN.The soft pastel drawings add warmth and richness to this sweet story that provides the true meaning of giving comfort and care to family, both human and animal. The story revovles around a series of miracles and surprises.
    Christmas book…I like Corgiville Christmas by Tasha Tudor…and the photo of the dog on this post!
    I take great joy in creating holiday magic for my family. There is no conflict with having an honest relationship with my children because I have found a way to imbue the magic with my truths. Sounds a bit vague, but I believe in the magic I bring. Chinaberry book catalog has some worthwhile suggestions for books.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! The Hannukah books sound wonderful. My kids are big fans of latkes and my husband (the cook in the family) often makes them on New Year’s Eve, along with his famous, to die for, meringues.

      I still believe in magic, too — yours, mine, and ours. Thanks for alerting me to the “putting the genie back in the bottle” article. I love it! And I agree that Chinaberry is an excellent book catalogue. I also love Bev Bos’ Turn the Page Press: http://www.turnthepage.com/servlet/the-Books/Categories

  3. Good stuff. It’s important for parents to know that young children don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality anyway — they don’t “get it” until 6+ — so there is no way to try to give them “the real story” before that age. Knowing that allows us to have the freedom to explore the magical aspects of the holidays. As they age, we can answer their questions more concretely, but not feel pressured to burst any bubbles.

    Thanks, Janet — aloha, and Happy Holidays!

  4. Thanks for the link, Janet!

    And happy holidays, too. 🙂

  5. I support simplicity around the holidays as well as acknowledge how difficult it is to swim against the cultural tide.

    Begin to form your own family traditions – perhaps letting-go of some from your family of origin but retaining the ones you cherish yourself.

    We told our first child that Santa represented the spirit of Christmas. We allowed the second to adopt the traditional belief and she survived learning the reality. So it goes. The story of St. Nicholas can bridge to Santa Claus, too, perhaps more easily at age 4 or older.

    I know parents who are intentionally a-religious whose children did not understand commonly known biblical references – which are a part of our culture. The story of Christ’s birth as the reason for Christmas celebrations can be shared with a toddler.

    1. Barbara, thank you for mentioning St. Nicholas…wonderful story to tell. Does anyone know a good book about him?

      1. Katherine says:

        Just wanted to share this site with St Nicholas books I found http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/books-picture/

        My Daughter has just turned 2 and I wanted her to understand where Santa came from, so St Nick is where we started.

        I ended up just getting the book “Christmas is…” By Gail Gibbons. It’s very basic but covers most of the bases, beginning with the story of Baby Jesus, mentioning St Nicholas and a story about him that might explain why we hang Christmas stockings these days, then saying some people call him Santa Claus and finishing by talking about some other traditions like Christmas trees sand decorations, wreaths, carol singers and big Christmas dinners.

        It’s great as she can relate to many of the things mentioned in the book and often points at our tree and says we decorated it 🙂

        Thanks for the post, it’s so helpful to think about as we decide how we will help shape Christmas for our little one and guide her experience of Christmas.

  6. I love Mary’s question and this post!

    Although my son is only 16.5 months old, I am already anticipating how I want to and will approach the subjects of various holidays and traditions with him. The holiday I enjoy the most is Christmas, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this one in particular lately. I take the time to remind myself of the magic of the season and the various celebrations and traditions I love so much (setting the tree, lighting candles, singing songs, opening my heart, feeling the magic of this time of year). My research into the origins of Christmas and Santa Claus (St. Nick) always lead me to earth-based religions and beliefs, mainly because this is where all following religions sourced their ideas in the first place. The character of Santa Claus can be traced to Germanic origins and a god of wisdom and magic, a shaman who traveled between worlds, he was a fearless warrior who fought for good over evil. Then on to the Roman Empire, and out of this era came celebrations with gifts and merrymaking; the underlying reason always having to do with the cycle of the sun, the days growing shorter and shorter and various rituals performed in hopes of bringing the light / (sun) back. There is SO much incredible history and fascinating information when we look into the origins of this holiday. Did you know the way the present-day Santa Claus looks is because of Coca-Cola?? Doesn’t take the magic out of the holiday for me, and I probably won’t teach my son any of these truths until he is much much older, but I feel it’s important to have a broad knowledge of why we do what we do for the season.

    Merry Christmas!
    Happy Solstice!

    1. Lilly, very interesting! Knew none of that…and the red and white Coca-Cola connection makes a lot of sense. (Funny, I’m looking at a bottle right now, left over from a holiday party my 18 year-old had here last night with 10 girlfriends.) I haven’t thought to research the origins of Christmas traditions, but I feel similarly about staying connected with the meaning in holidays. I need that anchor to be able to enjoy all the fluffier parts. I’ve felt that way since I was a child. After we’d bundled up (well, not too bundled in LA) and sang hymns and holiday songs door to door with the children on our street (the Kling St. Carolers) I felt like I’d earned Christmas.

      Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice to you and yours!

  7. oh! and a great book for more info along these lines…

    “The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” [Paperback]

    good for adults, but with activities for children and the whole family.

  8. Janet, I found this post while searching for something on your site (now I can not even remember) I have a 26 and a 13 mo boys. I have become so non interested in the holiday craziness but still yearning to start our own traditions for our little family. This article sure did give me so much to look forward too and so much to try or change from how I was raised or saw growing up. Thanks again for all the information. The examples, the links. Every word is worth a million bucks.

  9. hi hi! so glad for this post, janet…
    (don’t all my comments start out the same way?!)
    i’ve been thinking a lot about how to handle “santa” with dylan, who’s almost three and a half (!!!) now.
    i think this will be the first christmas that we start getting questions…
    i was worried that encouraging fantasy would be a mixed message since we focus on truth and respect – i didn’t want to get tangled in a lie about it.

    i loved christmas and the whole tale and magical curiosity surrounding santa and don’t particularly have any negativity associated with it or feel my bubble was burst, either.

    so i looked into your archives for words of wisdom and – lucky me as always – here they are.

    i’m feeling much better and like i can find a balance between truthfulness and fantasy that works for everyone…

    let the madness commence!
    (sigh. i’m like you – i try to minimize it but it has its way of seeping in!)

    xx me

    1. Awww, thanks, Sara! Dylan is ripe to enjoy the magic of the holidays this year… Hope you’ll share the highlights!

  10. Hi, Janet! Thanks for this reminder to keep it simple, sing, dance, and read books 🙂 I wanted to share something I did with my 2.5 year old twins that got all of us into the Christmas spirit like nothing else; I took them shopping! We made a list of people to buy gifts for, then I gave them each five dollars. We went to the dollar store and they picked out the gifts! The conversations they had while choosing the gifts were priceless.

    Some gifts made sense to me (tie for daddy “because it plays music and daddy likes music!” mug for Papaw “He likes coffee, and this is where you put the coffee!”) and others made sense only to them (a seat cushion for my sister…). But they felt a great deal of ownership in the whole process, including helping with the wrapping.

    It’s been a magical season already 🙂

    1. I love that, Mamma Mo! Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  11. My son is 18 months and I found a great way to satisfy his curiosity and need to touch the Christmas tree–the bottom third is bare except for 8 plsuh ornaments (we got them at Costco) that are like stuffed animals hanging from the tree. He is freely allowed to touch, move, play with, put back, etc these eight ornaments and it has pretty much eliminated our problems with him and the tree.

  12. Another great book is Helping Santa. I think it’s a great story that puts into perspective the true meaning of christmas. I’ve been struggling with the materialism of the season which is so distasteful in my opinion. My partner and I especially have no abundance of money and can’t be just buying stuff that people really don’t need and I have no desire fillin my house with a bunch of plastic toys that will eventually end up in a landfill. Sooo to end my rant the Holidays should be about family, love, caring for one another and giving to those in need. This book kind of says that and that’s what I love about it.

  13. Thank you for this post. I actually feel like I have been able come close to what you described. My son who is almost 2 is really enjoying Christmas lights and decorations everywhere as well as Christmas music. He liked helping make ornaments, choosing who gets each one and hanging some on our tree. He has enjoyed baking cookies, measuring out the ingredients and helping roll out dough and use cookie cutters. He put money in the Salvation Army pot.

    I’ve been telling him he gets to choose a present for our dog and that he has to keep it a secret. Surprisingly enough when I asked him to tell Daddy what we chose (organic treats), he said “no tell Bodi secret.” He loves our snow globes and pointing out Santa and penguins and snowmen in stores. It’s been a lot of fun.

    Another fun idea is the Elf on the Shelf. It’s a fun game for my son and he loves finding his elf each morning. We didn’t go into “watching you be naughty or nice” but see the elf as a visitor who is sharing the season with us. I am really enjoying remembering traditions from my childhood, starting new ones and sharing them with him.

    1. Oh, I love hearing these details, Jennifer! Really brings me back to the days when my kids were small. Especially love the “no tell Bodi secret”! Thank you for sharing!

  14. Every Christmas Eve, a wrapped box shows up mysteriously to both of my kids. Inside, are Christmas mugs (just pulled from the cabinet), a couple packets of hot cocoa, new pajamas for each of the kids, and the Polar Express DVD.

    such a warm, fuzzy memory for me… and my heart is warmed when my daughter talks about it with a twinkle in her eye. <3

  15. Great post, I agree with all of this! I’ve also enjoyed reading the comments – I’m going to take my daughter shopping for gifts for our cats after reading them, she’ll love that!

    Because I’m so enjoying others thoughts, I wanted to share my favorite holiday activity with young kids.

    Before my daughter was born, I taught preschool (3-4 year olds). Perhaps my favorite activity of the year was letting them wrap the gifts for their parents. I’d provide rolls of (inexpensive) wrapping paper, colored masking tape (easier to rip than scotch), and child sized scissors then simply let them go to town. There was some paper waste, and the gifts looked as you’d expect. But, they were so proud of the wrapping they did.

    This year, with my 2-year-old, I pre-cut the paper to a manageable size and offered the paper and tape. She was engaged with this activity for a long while and love looking at the fruits of her labor under the tree!

  16. Coffee filter snowflakes! My girls are covering every window in the house with them. My 7 year old learned how to make intricate cuts and coffee filters are much easier to cut than paper ( first one-“I’m awful at this” 10th one- “I’m AWESOME at this!!”) And little sis (27 mos.)is learning how to use kid scissors. She makes fringy snowflakes and tapes them up next to her big sister’s. Cheap project, major fun and pride 🙂

  17. Gwennifer says:

    For those who are nearing and fearing the “bubble bursting” stage, I read the article below a few years ago and it really struck a cord. A mother writes a letter replying to her daughter’s note “Mummy, are you Santa?”. It’s a beautiful piece, summed up pretty well by one of it’s own paragraphs:

    “Santa is bigger than any person, and his work has gone on longer than any of us have lived. What he does is simple, but it is powerful. He teaches children how to have belief in something they can’t see or touch.”

    I hope I can be as eloquent when the time comes.


  18. Thank you so much for this enlightening post & for sharing mine! I appreciate your life-changing work so very much & feel privileged to call you a friend.

    1. The privilege is mine, Rachel! Thank you for all the inspiring work you do!

  19. I want to share an experience of bubble bursting.

    My parents did Santa, Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy and I believed in all of them. I remember getting up between 3 and 5 every Christmas morning to check on my stocking and I was always very excited to lose a tooth.

    Then one year we spent Christmas away from home. My mom and I stayed with my great-grandpa to help with my great-grandma who was suffering from alzheimer’s. My parents had recently separated as well. I was 7 or 8 and I asked my mom how Santa would know to bring my stocking presents to a different place. I don’t quite remember how she told me, but when I found out that Santa and the rest weren’t real I was devastated. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as bad if I wasn’t going through a lot with my parents breaking up and my great-grandma unwell but it left me feeling like I didn’t want to do that to my kids.

    I have 2 daughters, 2.5 and 6 months and I’m not sure what’s going to happen at Christmas, whether we will be doing it at home or with my mom. I know that my older daughter exudes gratitude when getting gifts, especially if it’s something we made for her so I don’t feel like Santa will really add much.

  20. These holiday posts are some of my favorite, Janet. Thanks for your thoughtful guidance!

  21. Thank you so much for all of your articles I always find just what I need to help with my little one when I look on your page. We had a tradition growing up that I will continue with my children now that I thought I would share because I remember it so fondly now. My dad use to hide or just drop randomly little gifts in or front and back yard a few times on Christmas Eve and he told my brother and I that they must of fallen out f Santa’s sleigh as he drove over our house headed to all different countries and places and houses. My brother and I would get all bundled up and search until my dad hinted that we seemed to have found them all haha but I remember so many of those gifts and so few of my piles on Christmas morning because the whole process meant the world to me. Long after my brother and I stopped believing in Santa we requested that my dad do this and he always did 🙂

  22. Thanks for this post Janet. My question is, when you left gifts under the tree for your children, were they from you or from “Santa”? I like your approach but am unsure how to handle the gift giving.

    1. Michelle Brown says:

      I have this same question. Would appreciate responses from Janet or any other parents? Happy holidays!

      1. Happy Holidays, Katia and Michelle! We chose to have a few gifts from Santa and a few from us.

  23. Thanks for this article and all of the comments! My 3.5 year old son is very interested in Santa this year and I’ve found myself answering his questions with “well the story of Santa is…” – it’s a subtle addition which he may not hear yet, but I like the suggestion to add in the ‘mystery’ element too so will do that.
    Also, we live in the Southern Hemisphere (in subtropical Queensland, Australia) so the usual imagery of a white Christmas is quite confusing for a small child! We have some
    Australian Christmas books but the cultural imagery of snowflakes is very pervasive (even shop windows here, despite the summer heat!) When I asked my son what he thought about Christmas he told me that first it would grow very cold and then it would snow and then Santa would come… So far he seems most perplexed with the repeated answer that it won’t snow here, but that it does sometimes snow at Oma and Opa’s house in the Netherlands and in the North Pole where Santa lives. I’m trying to find him a nice globe to help with this and other day/night questions 🙂

  24. The most successful way we’ve been able to adapt Christmas so that the holiday is equally for our daughters is to set aside our expectations and just let them be happy as they are. Our first daughter was so distraught the year she was 21 months at Christmas because we’d tried to get her to keep opening presents when all she wanted to do was enjoy the fun new thing in front of her.

    By the time our youngest was celebrating her 2nd Christmas, we knew we wanted the day to be equally hers. She was invited to open new presents as she liked, but freely explored the gifts, boxes, and wrapping paper as curiosity allowed.

    We all enjoyed it more when we as the parents stopped trying to control the situation and instead gently guided our holiday experience.

    1. Makes sense to me! Glad you were able to let go and enjoy.

  25. Ive really enjoyed Llama Llama Holidrama—my son enjoys it and it reminds me of how overwhelming and challenging this season can be.

  26. We have 13 santas here in Iceland. They come one by one from the mountains where they live, from the night before 12th of december until the 24th. The children put their shoe in a window for the 13 nights, and the santa that visits that night gives them að little something. The last one’s name is Kertasnikir, which means “the beggar of candles.” He loves the candlelight and kids leave him a candle in their shoe.

  27. Tara Seymour says:

    I didn’t read through all the comments so I’m not sure if something like this was already mentioned, but I too have been wondering how I would handle the Santa myth. One thing that struck me recently was a teacher posted something requesting that parents try to limit the amount of Santa presents a child gets with the majority being from family. If we tell our kids that Santa brings “good” kids get presents and “naughty” kids get nothing, that leaves some kids who are less financially secure with the feeling that Santa loves them less or that they are not worthy. It was an easy choice for me then to decide to have 1-2 presents from Santa and any others would be from family. We’ll talk about the myth, but I’m not going to get too into it. Heck, I’m doing all the work so why some old dude get all the credit?!

  28. Hi Janet, thank you for the 3x book recommendations (not too overwhelming, and I trust your pre-selection). I will order them. We have recently moved from New Zealand to Germany with our two girls (4.5 years, and 1 year). While it’s a bit sad to be on our own at this time of year, we look forward to forming our own traditions and I’ll take your comments on board!

    In November we already went for a walk in the evening through the local forest with lanterns made at kindergarten, it was really magical. The snow here is also starting to fall, which really does add to that sense of magic. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Thanks for the posts here and on facebook, I often re-read the same many times (taking something new/motivating each time). Cheers, Gemma

  29. You mentioned Christmas as a Christian, and this is something I have been wondering since you re-shared this article on FB sometime in December.
    It is a bit of a personal question, but – are you a Christian? I had my ‘come back to Jesus’ moment a little over a year ago, and it has honestly shaken my parenting a bit, trying to find the balance between the RIE approach and teaching Christian values. I can see how things like sharing/taking toys don’t really align, discussing and teaching kindness, and I honestly struggle with the obedience factor, too.
    I’m just not sure where the balance is on this, and if you are a Christian and raised your kids with that value system, I would love to know how your religious beliefs intertwined with your parenting, how you found the balance, that sort of thing. I hope this all makes sense!

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