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How to Make Christmas more Memorable than Ever

December 26th, 2010
Without spending any more than you had planned
This year my 8 year old daughter asked for many things but several of them were “spy” related (walkie talkies, secret book safe, etc.). Other items on the list could also be grouped into the “spy” category even though they were not really espionage items per se (lap top computer, camera, etc.)

So this year I decided to incorporate two important psychological principles into our Christmas ritual. The first was the fact that children have a better time remembering and recalling events that are unique rather than comprehensive. That is, a child will remember the year they had the firetruck birthday cake and visited the fire house on their birthday MORE than they will remember any of the string of five birthdays where they had a moon bounce and a pinata. The idea is to create a “theme” so that the child has an emotional hook upon which to hang their memories.

The second principle we tapped into this Christmas was the idea that a big build up deserves a big finish. Weeks of hype leading up to Christmas can only lead to let down when all the gifts are opened in less than 30 minutes.

But how do you prolong the opening of the gifts?

The idea came to me when I realized that my daughter wanted spy related gifts. So I’ll share with you what I did. This plays well with a spy theme, but can easily be applied to any childhood holiday theme. Think treasure hunt meets Amazing Race. Here’s how our morning unfolded.

At 4:25 my daughter woke us up to open gifts. She asked for some spy gear and a notebook among a few other gifts. Under the tree there was a pink spiral notebook and an invisible ink pen. That’s it. Nothing else. Some gifts from grandparents wrapped off to the side, a stocking of fruit and candy, and a notebook and pen. Rather anti-climactic, eh? She’s not upset, but she knows something is up. She insists that we open a gift from her and we do. Then she flips through the notebook and discovers a page with symbols on it. She recognizes it as a cipher from a book on codes and ciphers I gave her for her birthday last May.

She has to remember about the book, find it, then decipher the message. When she does it reads: “Look in the big brown treasure chest”. I was actually surprised at how long she searched the house before realizing that our coffee table is in fact, a big, brown chest. She opened it to find a single walkie-talkie and a manual.

“What good is ONE walkie-talkie?” she asks.

“Exactly!” I say. But she doesn’t get the clue and decides to abandon the trail and check her stocking for more gifts. She finds a few little things, some fruit, a few mechanical pencils. Not much. A dead end. So she flips through the notebook again, then looks at the walkie talkie and begins thinking.

“There’s got to be another walkie talkie…” she says thinking out loud. “Wait! I could talk into this one and hear where the other one is!”

This is not exactly the outcome I had hoped for. I wanted her to read the manual, learn to use the “Call” function and use that to locate the other walkie-talkie. But I like solutions to problems and all of us enjoyed seeing her creatively solve each level of the mystery all by herself. It was very empowering to her. Using her method she was able to track the other walkie talkie to its location in the guest bedroom. It was sitting on a charger on top of a box with a bow on it and her name in big bold letters.

She found the walkie talkie but was so focused on finding it, she didn’t even see the package. Instead she looked at us. “Now what?”

I shrugged and asked “Have you noticed any patterns?”

She thought deeply. “Um…each present sort of leads to the next one.”
“Yes, so…”

“So these walkie-talkies should lead me to the next present?”

“Maybe they already did.”

“Huh?” Then she began looking around and laughed when she saw the gift literally under her arm. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I didn’t even see it! I am going to have to keep my eyes open better!”

She opened the box to discover a lap top computer! (one of the items on her list and since it was refurbished it cost less than $200). She was ecstatic. She doesn’t notice or care that it is refurbished. She gets the power cord, plugs it in and opens it up. We sort of expected her to watch streaming Netflix (which she does instead of television) but by this time she knew there was probably another gift waiting if she could find the clue the laptop represented.

She opened the computer, found a folder on the desktop with her name on it, opened it to find a folder labeled “Spy Stuff”. She opened that to find a photo clue. It was a spread of groceries on our kitchen counter with the caption “Something is wrong with this picture”.

Again, I thought it would take her some time to figure it out, but it was less than two minutes before she said “We don’t eat THAT brand of food item! I gotta find it!” and she ran for the kitchen pantry.

In the pantry she found the jar, opened it to discover it was a secret hiding place. Yes, I visited a “head shop” and bought my 8-year-old an item that most people use to hide illicit items. I suppose that when she’s in college she’ll recognize what she got, but I hope she doesn’t figure it out BEFORE then. Right now it is “spy equipment” not “drug paraphernalia”.


She opened the container (that will remain unidentified so that she can effectively use it to hide espionage data from my Facebook friends and blog readers and possibly pot from her RAs once she goes to college) to discover a USB SD card reader and an encrypted message. The message says “Use code #11” and so she pulls out her birthday code book to begin deciphering the message.

She spent about 5 minutes deciphering the message which told her to check in the ottoman for the next gift. She wasn’t sure what an “ottoman” was so she got on her computer and did a Google search.

She figures it out and she finds a digital camera (one of the big items on her list) that we have had for years. We recently bought a new one and even more recently upgraded our cell phones to machines that have better cameras than any that we own. So we were happy to give her an old, used, digital camera with all the accessories. And she was ecstatic to have it and use it.

Again, we thought she would begin taking pictures with it and get sidetracked for a while, but by this time she recognized the pattern: “one gift leads to the next”. So she almost instantly says “Can you show me how to look at the pictures that are already on here. I’ll bet there are some clues.” And of course there were. A string of pictures that were a sort of visual map leading to a single CD on a spindle in the office. The CD was homemade and labeled “Lady Gaga Music”.

“I’ll bet there’s not even any music on this thing” she said and I thought, She’s going to get through this whole thing in less time than it took me to set it up!

“Dad, can I put this in the CD drive in my computer?”

“Yes.” She did and sure enough, there was no music, only a text file that explained about fonts and how to change them. There was then a sample of various fonts including a very long passage written in a font of symbols which made it totally unreadable. So she re-read the instructions on how to change fonts, did so and was able to read the passage.

The passage was a set of instructions about how an SD card can be used to store more than just pictures from a camera. It can also be used to store documents, movies, and other computer files. It went on to tell her that there were hidden files on the SD card in her camera and that she was going to have to use the SD card reader to access them.

So she excitedly got three of her previous gifts (lap top, camera, SD card reader) and used them together to find a video file of me acting like a secret agent hiding something in a book safe and putting the safe on a shelf in our home library.

After laughing hysterically at her crazy dad and the lengths he’ll go to, she ran to the library, located the giant book safe and withdrew the next gift along with another message (not enciphered this time!). The gift was a craft project (she LOVES crafts) to build a book safe. The note said to look for a book gift in the library.

“There’s a million books in this room! How will I know which one it is?”

“What do gifts normally look like?” I ask

“Wrapped in paper.”

“Okay.” And in less than 4 minutes she found a book wrapped in Christmas paper. She ripped it open to find a copy of “Harriet the Spy”, the story of a young girl who wants to be a spy and writes her thoughts down in a notebook. “This is just like ME!” she says.

Now, for some reason, at this point she sort of dropped the ball. She set the book down and decided to begin playing with some of her stuff. Don’t get me wrong, her and her mother had been communicating everything through the walkie talkies all morning even though they never left each other’s side. But now this was different. She had reached a point where she just paused for a while. She didn’t want or need any other presents just yet. She wanted to go back and absorb what had happened so far. And with good reason. At this point she had been awake solving mysteries, deciphering messages, and finding hidden presents for more than two hours straight.

Annie started to prod her and I gave her a look that said “NO!” We had a pact to let this unfold naturally. And it did. After about a 15 minute “rest” she came to us and wondered out loud if there were any other presents. Then she announced that she was going to start looking for any more. Five minutes of random searching led me to ask her “How did you find the other gifts?”

“Oh, yeah…each one leads to the next. What was my last present?” She rushed back to the book, flipped through it three times before finding the folded note inside. It was coded in an interesting way. Each word in the note was a string of 3 numbers. The first is a page number, the second is a line number, and the third is the number of the word on that line. So I had to go through and find all the words in my next clue INSIDE the book in order to write the note.

There was no word “pink” in the entire book, but fortunately there was a character named “Pinky” which worked close enough.

It took her just seconds to locate the USB flash drive in the shape of a pink pig that had been hanging on our tree unnoticed for days. She almost immediately realized that the nose came out and knew the USB would fit into her computer.

On the drive was another text file in a strange font. By this time she knew exactly what to do and the next clue told her to check the hall closet for a present wrapped in plain white paper.

She ripped it open to discover a secret agent fingerprint kit. She wondered for about five minutes how she was going to use the fingerprint kit to find her next gift and I realized that she was losing the trail so I cheated a bit. “That’s weird that all your gifts were wrapped in Christmas paper except for this one. Just plain old white paper. Normal old regular paper. Nothing special there.”

“Wait a minute!” and she ran back to her growing pile of spy gear to get the invisible ink pen that was originally waiting for her under the tree. Using the UV light she flashed it on the shredded wrapper and saw that there was writing on it. So she had to carefully reassemble the pieces and then read that she could find her LAST gift in the garage. It was a remote controlled helicopter that she had wanted.

A little over two and a half hours of active searching before she was able to get down to playing with it all! Of course the search was as much fun or more fun than the toys. More importantly, it created a THEME upon which her memories will hang forever.

There are three Christmases we experience every year (and also 3 birthdays, 3 vacations, etc.). The first is the ANTICIPATION of the event. The planning, the dreaming, the hoping, the list making, the talking about it all with friends and family, marking days of the calendar, etc. This buildup is powerful before any major event, but it seems that when it comes to Christmas it has been really blown way out of proportion. That’s not good or bad, but it is important to recognize.

The second holiday is the ACTUAL experience itself. Opening gifts, realizing you got just what you wanted, the delicious treats, the funny coincidences when someone get you the same gift you got them, the tree falling over, the regifting, all the sharing and laughing and joy and disappointment and everything else that comes with experiencing the actual holiday (whether it’s Christmas, a vacation, a birthday, or whatever).

Lastly, is the MEMORY of the event. When we look back and recall the funny things that happened, and the joy we felt during the holidays.

The fact is that for most of us, the third holiday (the memory) will be the one that lasts the longest and yet it is often the most neglected. Our brain is just not evolved to remember lists of gifts or specific dates. We do better recalling themes and categorical events. So when you give your holiday a specific and unique theme your brain has a much easier time storing the memories of what happened.

I don’t think that the spy chase I created for my daughter increased or decreased her anticipation of the event since she had no awareness of it prior to Christmas morning. I think it probably added a little bit of fun to the event itself. I’ll be the first to admit that opening gifts is fun no matter what and putting the gifts into a scavenger hunt sort of gauntlet won’t dramatically change any of that. It won’t make crummy gifts magically more desireable. It won’t make 3 gifts seem like a room full of presents. It won’t save you any money or remind anyone of “the true meaning of Christmas” whatever that might mean to you.

All it really does is set up a mental and emotional peg upon which my daughter will be able to hang the memory of this year (“The Spy Christmas”). Twenty years from now she will probably not remember the helicopter, the fingerprint kit, or maybe not ANY of the specific gifts. But she will always remember HOW she found them. She will always remember the chase from one clue to the next. The specific gifts become less important as time goes on and the theme becomes more critical in the remembering process.

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