Mom kept a pretty vigilant eye on the gifts, so we couldn't get too close. But then Christmas Eve arrived. They had let us out of school early on the 23rd. Then we had a whole day at home on the 24th. A whole day to think about the following morning when we would—as the narrator of A Christmas Story puts it—plunge "into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice."
We tried doing other things—playing games, watching TV, eating treats, etc—but the pile of brightly wrapped gifts that grew every time Mom came out of the bedroom with a few more boxes in hand drew us with an impossibly irresistible force. Regardless of the distractions we attempted, that treasure trove was right there tantalizingly out in the open, mocking our childish passions with its close yet inaccessible presence.
Then about midday Mom decided that she had to run some errands. We correctly assumed that she was about to pick up a few last minute items for us, since she was adamant that we all remain behind. I'm also sure that she wanted her trip to be as quick as possible. She knew that each additional child would hamper that goal. Besides, my oldest sibling was 12½, plenty old enough to watch the rest of us, none of whom were tiny.
No sooner had the taillights of the car disappeared around the corner than we began inspecting the wrapped hoard under the tree. We looked to see to whom each package was addressed. We touched none of them at first. Then we ever so carefully began picking up parcels to feel their weight and to gently shake them. We paid careful attention to each gift's location and orientation so that it could be replaced just as Mom had left it. We didn't want her to know of our surreptitious gift reconnaissance.
My oldest brother played the part of the executive. He was always the chief executive when our parents weren't around—not simply due to his age, but due to his nature. Today he is the chief operating officer of a vibrant multinational firm. He kept our foray under control.
At least, he did so until the second oldest—who has always been the most adventurous among us—decided that he would carefully open the end of one of his gifts and then reseal the package. We posted a sentinel at the front window to watch for Mom. My brother was able to see one of the minor gifts he was to receive. Then, as promised, he cautiously fixed the wrapping and returned the box to its original location.
Having proved that this could be done, my executive brother opted for a turn at it. He too discovered what one of his minor gifts would be and returned the gift to its place. Of course, the remainder of us clamored for the same privilege. But the executive said that we were insufficiently skilled to accomplish the task without leaving evidence that would alert Mom to our transgression. After a fair amount of pestering, he finally gave in.
I selected a box covered with thick shiny foil wrapping paper. I still remember that it had a silver background covered with large colored dots, most of which were purple. The paper was so tough that I easily pealed the tape back without scarring the wrapping. I was thrilled to see a Kenner SSP car.
My younger brother picked a box that was kind of heavy for its size. He opened it to discovered an HO scale train engine. He had so wanted a real HO railway set. But it was so expensive that Mom and Dad could afford to get him little else. So Mom had opened the set and packed each train car separately. The power converter was in its own package. The tracks were split into several packages. But as soon as my brother saw the engine, he pretty much knew what was in most of the other gifts addressed to him.
Unfortunately, the box my brother picked was wrapped in very delicate paper. Unlike the thick foil wrapping on my box, the paper had easily torn. What's more is that the only piece of that style of paper remaining on the roll was far too small to cover the gift, so it could not be wrapped anew.
My oldest brother was trying to help my younger brother re-wrap the box in its now tattered wrapping when the posted sentinel saw a car turn the corner that looked like Mom's car. With no time to spare, they slapped the wrapping together, trying to cover the unsightly rips with tape. They re-attached the bow and flung the box under the tree in nearly the right spot under another box.
Fortunately, the car was not ours. But Mom returned a few minutes later anyway. By then we appeared to be casually lounging in front of the TV. Inside we were reeling from a sense of impending doom. Mom returned to her room for more wrapping. Surely she would discover the pre-opened gift upon delivering more gifts to the base of the tree. But she didn't. We had gotten away with it!
A couple of hours and a couple of trips to the tree later, Mom moved some gifts to make room for a few more boxes. Mom's wrapping jobs were always meticulous and gorgeous. Upon moving one gift, Mom's eagle eye suddenly caught sight of a box that was very un-meticulously wrapped.
Even as Mom hoisted the formerly gorgeously wrapped toy train engine, I thought we might still get away with our spying. And even if we didn't, my younger brother—thanks to a pact among brothers—would throw himself on the grenade, as it were, and proclaim that he alone was responsible for gift espionage.
It didn't work out that way. When we did our best to do the three monkeys routine when Mom asked what us older brothers had been doing while our younger brother opened the gift. Mom must have learned her interrogation techniques from Sgt. Joe Friday, because it didn't take her long to get to the bottom of what had happened.
We were in serious trouble. By the time the whole thing unraveled we knew it wouldn't be long before Dad would get home from work. It would be all over then.
Thankfully, our punishment was rather light. Dad didn't want anger or harshness hanging over our Christmas Eve celebration. And it was hard for my parents to be angry the following morning. They seemed to get nearly as much delight out of watching us open our gifts as we got from opening them ourselves. My younger brother was still thrilled with each box he opened.
The following Christmas I was surprised to see Mom again putting gifts under the tree a few days before Christmas. Maybe she thought we'd learned our lesson. She was only partially right. We never again tried to prematurely open any gifts. But we did carefully scope out the packages when we were unsupervised.
We were surprised to discover that the gift tags showed only symbols and no names. That way our parents were able to keep us from knowing which package belonged to which child until the operative moment. It would have been unconscionable—and probably punishable by pummeling—to open another brother's gift. So nobody tried opening any gifts ahead of time.
Just as Dad was about to explain the code on Christmas morning, my analytic executive brother piped up and asked if he could guess. Amused, Dad told him to go ahead. My brother asserted that the circle was for child #1, the cross for #2, the triangle for #3, and the square for #4.
My parents looked at each other in stunned amazement, and then asked, "How did you know that?" "Simple," my brother explained. "A circle has only one line so it is for #1. The cross has two lines so it is for #2. A triangle has three lines so it is for #3 and a square has four lines so it is for #4." My surprised Dad said, "We didn't even think about that. We picked these symbols randomly." My brother surmised that they must have subconsciously recognized the correlating pattern.
It may be due to my childhood gift espionage that my wife and I wait until just before retiring on Christmas Eve to put gifts under the tree. But we keep no secrets about where the gifts are stored until then. Our kids know that they can go there if they really want to. It's up to them whether they want to be surprised on Christmas morning or not.
I'm not sure whether our kids spy or not. They certainly don't do so while we're around. Even if they spy, it seems that they still manage to quite enjoy opening gifts on Christmas morning. And maybe gift spying is just another fun part of our family's Christmas traditions. After all, it still makes me smile.