Every parent dreams of this scenario: After several months of pestering, shopping, and hiding, the parent has finally found Santa's Gift. Sending the children to bed on Christmas Eve a little early, Mom and Dad share hot toddies by the fireplace while wrapping/assembling/decorating the place to look like a child's fantasy. The pony happily whinnying in its stall, the model railroad merrily choo-chooing, the fashionable bicycle on the patio, toy du jour already assembled and working, awaiting the morning glowing faces of the little ones, who've slept just a little late, and are coming down just in time for cagey old Daddy to take out his digicam to register their amazed surprise! This is what kept Eastman Kodak in business for so many years, and continues to inspire many feet of ad copy on how to pull off this feat.

What usually happens is that the kids get up while it's still dark, just a half-hour after the 'rents finally get the last piece of the playset assembled, sneak down, and have the place effectively trashed by the time Mom and Dad realize, groggily, that it's Christmas already, and the Kodak moment, if there was one, had long dissipated before Shirley discovered the possibilities of using Barbie as a weapon on Seymour after he terrorized the cat into tipping the tree over with his G.I.Joe Commando Center.

The traditional Victorian contents of a stocking are these: something to eat, something to read, something to play with, and something useful. For the children, this is one time when they should feel loved unconditionally, by a warm, interested friend of the family, who spends a great deal of time abroad, who alas, cannot be with them on this glad morning, but would like to proffer a small gift; for the parents, it's a gift of at least an hour or so alone in bed, enjoying the pleasures of Morning Wood while the kids are busy communing with Santa. Yup, it's about everybody getting a little guiltfree, unsupervised age-appropriate playtime on the one day everyone has off. What could be a better gift?

In order to make the dream a reality, the parents are going to have to play Santa in mind and spirit: as Santa, you should appear to know a great deal about the household (perhaps a few letters might be in order?), and to take a great interest in what's going on. The further you can get from Toys R' Us or the mall here, the better, since he's (of course) not going to be as twigged to American usages as the kids are -- also, it seems just a little more like magic if "his" gifts are markedly different from the ones the kid can readily buy on their own. Also out are anything not immediately gratifying (like store cards) or something you can't play with (like jewelry or a collectible).

  • Something to eat: because your little tootsies are going to be ravenous, traditionally an orange, chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit. Adapt this menu to your snowflakes' allergies, wants and/or desires: a tangerine, for instance, or corn nuts, if they run that way. Put it in the toe so they will have to unpack the whole sock in order to get to the goodies. It's best if the candies are of a slightly unfamiliar brand: Storz's Chocolate Ladybugs are better than Godiva. Marzipan and maple sugar, Philadelphia Sugar Toys, violet pastilles...these are Christmas dreams...

  • Something to read: back when, they had Improving Tales for the Young printed in a stocking-friendly size just for this purpose. Get something chewy enough to keep them going for an hour or two: Yearling Books are pretty much the gold standard, or an Oz book. Unless you're certain they'll start rampaging without the latest installment of their favorite series, here again, try for something that's a little retro, off-beat, or foreign.

  • Something to play with: you can see how this is going. If they're youngish, you can go the bitty wooden toy route, otherwise, a cart for the handheld might be in order, or a Rubik's cube. Fancy playing cards with Lady Cadogan's Solitaire Book. Little green army men. Pocket keyboards. 3-d assemble-it puzzles. Puppets, jacks and a ball, you get the idea.

  • Something useful. Unisex, socks, mittens, or a flashlight. Age-and-sex appropriate: a tool or sewing kit. Tire repair kit for a bike. Fancy bubble bath, soap or stationery. Knitting needles. Hobby or school supplies. Hair ribbons.
Pack in order, leaving one or two items poking above the stocking. Leave by the fireplace, or designated family shrine, perhaps with thank-you note (for milk, cookies, etc.) Enjoy a relaxed evening and morning. If they find out what the real agenda is, they'll not be let down, but smile, and look forward to next year.

But what if you really want to surprise them with a pony? And get the reaction shots?

That, my friend, is your gift to them. Merry Christmas!

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