Of all the Christmas traditions we’ve tried to institute over the years (that pickle ornament, for example, which seemed so fun but never quite seems to get hidden in the tree) I wouldn’t have guessed the Christmas potato would be one that stuck.
The Christmas potato doesn’t have its basis in quaint folklore or family history. No, it germinated in the well-manured soil of network television sitcoms. I don’t even know which TV show it was. All I know is that the year Ellie was in third grade, a short promo for some family sitcom came on at least two dozen times a day, and the bit that caught our attention was a surly grandma who stalked into the room on Christmas day, tossed an uncooked spud at her grandchild and said, “Here’s your Christmas potato.” My kids thought it was hilarious.
That year, Ellie had moved into a harder math class, and she was a little behind on her math facts. All fall, she had worked hard to memorize her multiplication tables, and by Christmas, she was fully caught up. We had been planning to reward this extra effort with a special present at Christmas: her first iPad. She knew about the reward. It had helped to motivate her in the long memorization process. But still, Christmas is a little more fun if you pretend to be surprised, you know? So we all pretended. Every day, I told Ellie that she’d be getting a Christmas potato. Her dad said she was getting a Christmas potato. We told her siblings she was getting a Christmas potato. We told other family members she was getting a Christmas potato. They laughed, but we stuck to our story. I’m sure no one thought we were weird.
By Christmas morning, I know Ellie was half afraid that it was true. She thought she was getting an iPad. But, I mean, what if it really was just a potato? Or, you know, socks?
Socks, as it happens, also have a special place in our family Christmas traditions. Specifically, stinky socks. When the kids were little, we were determined to teach them gratitude, starting with the fake but polite kind that you express for gifts even when you hate them and extending through to a true understanding of how absolutely privileged their lives are. (The beauty of fake gratitude is that when you’re truly grateful for your life and the people who love you, your gratitude is never really fake because it never had anything to do with the present itself.)
So each year, in the days leading up to Christmas, we would have variations on the following conversation:
Nate: Now what if we are all opening presents and all you get is a half-burned candle? Are you going to cry?
Nate: Are you going to throw a fit?
Nate: What are you going to say?
Kids: Thank you so much!
Nate: And what if your cousins all get huge Lego sets and all you get is a stinky sock? What will you say?
Kids: Thank you so much!
Nate: And when we come home, who will take care of you?
Kids: You will.
The stinky sock conversation gets repeated every single year, and even though it’s no longer really needed, sometimes the kids still initiate it, just for fun. They like to vary their answers. (This is the best stinky sock I’ve ever been given! I’ve always wanted a stinky sock!) We try to steer away from too much sarcasm, but I couldn’t totally vouch for our success.
On the Christmas potato morning, we let the kids open all the other presents first. And then, we handed Ellie the special box that had been waiting at the back. I experienced a brief moment of worry. What if, in spite of the preparation, she was super disappointed? What if Christmas morning nerves made her burst into tears? She was barely containing her excitement as she reached into the box and pulled out…a raw potato.
She did cry. Because she was laughing so hard that she couldn’t stop.
We were all laughing. The younger kids may have even fallen on the floor.
When our delight in the Christmas potato died down, we gave her the real gift, of course. She squealed and clutched it to her chest, but even so, it didn’t garner half the excitement of the potato.
Naturally, the iPad got a lot of use over the next few years, but the thing the kids still talk about is the potato. And whenever they reach an age where they know to expect a certain big present for Christmas, they insist that all they want is a Christmas potato.
It turns out that when you trust that someone will give you good gifts, you’re free to laugh at the weird crap that comes with it. In fact, the weird crap becomes a reminder of your certainty that good gifts are still to come. It becomes a reminder of your confidence in this person who loves you.
And on the rare horrible day when all there is is stinky socks, you say thank you even though you don’t really mean it. Because the way you choose to be doesn’t have to depend on the gifts you’re given. And because you know in the end, your dad will take care of you.