I am not a very traditional guy. I almost never go to church, and when I do, it's not the Lutheran church of my upbringing but an Eastern Orthodox one, where you light candles instead of listening to sermons. In England, I don't get a wistful feeling when treading on the soil of my ancestors. And except for a distaste of debt, I've shed all cultural remnants of my German forefathers. You can tell that just by watching my children, who are as disciplined as uncaged zoo animals.
But on Christmas, all this changes. I do not deviate from the process I learned as a child. When my daughter's friends opened their presents on Christmas eve, a heretical act in my view, I was put to the test. She insisted on opening her presents early. My wife, who grew up in the Soviet Union without this tradition, was willing to cave just to shut her up. But I held firm. I explained that all gifts were in Santa's hands, even the ones we bought for each other.
My girl is used to getting her way through relentless misbehavior. She tortured us all day, all evening, and into the night. At bedtime, I explained that her voice might frighten off the reindeer, and that if Santa saw the lights on in her room, he might just skip our house. It worked. She fell asleep. My wife and I got busy, finishing the wrapping and labeling and preparing the stockings.
In the morning, events unfolded exactly as I wanted them to. The kids woke up early and dove into their stockings. Then they woke us up, begging to open their gifts. I moved slowly, making coffee, dragging out the process. Only then did I sit down by the tree and take the first present. I looked for the label and read it, silently, with a small nod of recognition.
The children sat perfectly still, listening, with a degree of attention I didn't know they were capable of. Only then, in that silent moment, did I say the magic words before handing out the first gift, exactly like my great-grandfather did on the first Christmas I can remember:
"MERRY CHRISTMAS, to Katya, from Santa."