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The Christmas conundrum

It’s one of the enduring issues of this magical time of the year.

Christmas eve, long ago

It can split families wide open, or bring them together in harmony. And it may be answered in part by your family history.


Do you open presents on Christmas Eve? Or Christmas morning?

And do you know why your family chose one over the other?

In my family, I’d always assumed that we opened presents on Christmas eve because of my father’s German heritage.

You see, Christmas Eve is the traditional gift-giving time in many countries: in the Netherlands, Argentina, Austria, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Quebec, Romania, Uruguay, and Sweden, Christmas presents are usually opened on Christmas Eve.1

In Germany, and particularly in protestant (Lutheran) Germany, the Weihnachtsmann (Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus) brings the gifts on Christmas Eve and rings a bell as he leaves. When the children hear the bell ring, they can enter the room where the Christmas tree is and find their presents.2

And that’s the way we did it in my family: we older kids kept the younger ones upstairs until we heard the bells ring. We were all supposed to be very quiet and listen for the bells. Only when we were sure we could hear them could we venture down and find the presents under the tree.

And afterwards you would see us as we are here, in this picture taken by my father and showing my mother and all of their seven children on a Christmas Eve so many years ago.

But yesterday as I was driving from my home to my youngest brother’s home, for the first of several holiday stops this year, I had to wonder… what about my mother’s family traditions?

I knew that, on the rare Christmases when we were all well enough to pile into the car and drive the 12 or so hours from New Jersey to Virginia on roads that were not then interstates, my grandparents had allowed us to open presents on Christmas Eve.

But I didn’t know if that’s what they’d done when my mother and her many brothers and sisters were little. So, grateful as I always am that there are those I can still ask even after all the losses in our family over the years, I called my Aunt Trisha, my mother’s youngest sister, and asked.

“Christmas Eve,” she responded immediately, when I asked when presents were opened in their family. Somehow that didn’t surprise me. But I admit I was a bit surprised — and more than a bit amused — by her answer when I asked if she knew why.

Now remember: my mother was one of 12 children born to my grandparents Clay Rex and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. And think about it: the sheer number of presents and the sheer number of bodies gathered around to open them.

“Of course I know why,” Trisha told me. “Mama always said why. She said there wasn’t any way you could cook Christmas dinner for that many people if the little ones were tugging on her skirts looking to open their presents. This way, they could be occupied playing with their toys while dinner got started early on Christmas Day.”

Makes perfect sense to me.

How about in your family — Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? And why?


  1. Wikipedia (, “Christmas Eve,” rev. 24 Dec 2012.
  2. Wikipedia (, “Weihnachten,” rev. 19 Dec 2012.
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