At first, we did it out of excitement, unable to wait. Later, it became a game about how far we could go, how much risk we were willing to take.
In time, it became a ritual.
The first time we crept downstairs, anxious to see what Santa left us, my younger sister, Jen, and I faced an obstacle: each other. "Go to bed," I whispered, not wanting her to make any noise, thereby arousing the attention of our parents, who had only a half hour or less gone to bed after placing our wrapped gifts under the tree. Our older sister, Holly, was sound asleep, able to contain her excitement and curiosity.
The first time that Jen and I met on the stairs, we got our parents' attention: "In to bed," my mother called from her bedroom, "or Santa won't come." Reluctantly, Jen and I returned to our respective rooms, giving each other the stink eye for having spoiled the other's plans at checking out the cache of presents.
Later that night, after I had deemed that everyone was fast asleep, I slowly made my way downstairs. I would pause on the stairs every time a step creaked, waiting to hear if anyone had stirred at the soft noise. It took a couple of minutes to reach the ground floor and sneak to our living room, where our Christmas tree stood. I had reached my destination without arousing suspicion.
I was a stealth machine.
A faint light illuminated the living room through our sheer curtains from the outdoor street lights, casting a twinkling glow off the tinsel and glass balls on the tree. My eyes, already adjusted to the darkness from my bedroom, could easily make out the outline of the tree and the mound of boxes and parcels underneath it. I saw the stockings, filled to bursting, hanging off the edge of the shelf of our wall unithaving no fireplace or mantle. I slowly approached the tree, making my way towards the light switch underneath the tree, the one that would light up the tree and give me a clear view of the gifts.
I was so busy moving quietly, using my eyes to the best of their abilities, making sure that I didn't trip over a present, that I hadn't used my ears to detect another presence. Coming into the living room, equally quiet, was Jen.
"What are you doing here?" I whispered.
"The same thing as you," was the response.
"You're going to wake everyone up," I complained.
"Not if I keep quiet," she said. "You're making all of the noise."
I knew that by continuing to argue, we'd wake the rest of the household. We dropped our voices to a barely audible whisper. "What should we do?" I asked.
"Want to turn on the Christmas tree?" Jen suggested.
"I was just about to do that," I said, "but only for a second." I was afraid that somehow the light would make its way out of the living room, up the stairs and down the hall, and through my parent's closed door and up to their eyes. Such was the paranoid logic of a young kid who was not where he was supposed to be.
I reached for the switch and the tree sparkled in the warm glow of the lights. Jen and I let our eyes wander over the packages and the brightly patterned paper, trying to see through the wrap and trying to discern the gift by its shape. We kept the lights on for only a couple of seconds, and before we felt we ran further risk, we immersed ourselves once again in darkness.
We decided that it was too great a risk to remain downstairs any longer, so we agreed to return to our rooms. We further agreed that we shouldn't try ascending the stairs at the same time, so Jen went first, and when I knew that she was safely in her room, I made my way to my own.
Operation: Christmas was born.
The next morning, as Jen and I sat in our living room with Holly and our parents, we gave each other a smiling look, silently communicating that we shared a little secret, that we had gotten away with a reconnaissance of our haul of gifts. No one else knew what we had done. We had gotten cleanly away with this act.
Leading up to the following Christmas, Jen and I privately discussed going downstairs to take another sneak peek at the gifts under the tree. But this year, we would be more organized. We synchronize our clocks so that we would have our rendezvous better timed. Also, the mystery of Santa Claus had pretty much worn out on us, and our parents decided that they would put our stockings at the end of our beds before they went to bed themselves. they figured that if we woke up to our stockings in the morning, it would buy them a little more sleep by keeping us occupied.
Jen and I decided that when our folks came into our rooms to put the stockings at the end of our beds, we would feign sleep. We would listen for them to quiet down, and then we'd wait a half hour. We would then give each other an additional 15 minutes to go through our stockings and check out our haul.
And then it was showtime.
We would quietly step out of our rooms and wait for the other to show up in the hall. We would then head down the stairs together. In the weeks leading up to the big day, or night, we would make a note of the squeaks in the stairs, and either avoid the step to a side of the step that didn't creak, or failing to find a safe spot, overstep that stair altogether. We memorised the walking pattern, going up and down the stairs. We wouldn't make a sound.
In the second year, I brought a flashlight. Not so much to see our way to the tree but to look at the presents without fumbling for the light switch. We would turn the tree on, marvel at the packages underneath, and then turn the lights off, but would use the flashlight to find which gifts belonged to us.
On the way back up, we heard a stirring from my folks' room. We froze. We didn't know if one of our parents had simply moved or was on their way to us. So we stood, halfway up the staircase, and remained silent and motionless until we deemed it was safe to proceed.
That was year two.
In the years that followed, we continued the tradition. Jen and I got more sophisticated. We drew maps of the upper and ground floors, marked out a plan of where who should be at what time. We ran drills when we were home alone. Operation: Christmas became a finely choreographed exercise.
We became emboldened: we'd turn the lights on the Christmas tree and leave it on for as long as we were downstairs. We'd stay longer, counting up our presents and figuring out what each one was, based on what we had asked for and the size that the package would be. We would get ourselves a snack and eat it, surrounded by wrapped boxes.
In our teens, we would unwrap the gifts, confirming what we suspected the package to be. If we could further remove the gift from it's casing or box, we'd do it. We'd play with our stuff. And then we would carefully re-wrap the present and put it back where our parents had arranged it. Some Christmases, we'd return to our bedrooms, knowing exactly what we were getting in a few hours.
The thrill of Christmas morning came in feigning surprise, in keeping from laughing out loud. Some mornings, Jen and I couldn't make eye contact for fear of bursting out in hysterics.
We also enjoyed the surprise of seeing what our sister, Holly, had received under the tree. Unwrapping her gifts wasn't even a consideration.
Operation: Christmas went on for years, until Jen finally moved out of the house. Even though she was younger than me, she flew the coup first. Our game was up. I never went to check on the presents by myself. Operation: Christmas wouldn't have been the same without a partner in crime.
When we became adults, Jen and I confessed our crime. My parents wouldn't believe us. They couldn't accept that we would have the capability of pulling off such a caper, that we'd be able to unwrap gifts, play with the toys, and put them back together. Not without our parents detecting anything was amiss. Jen and I just looked at each other, smiled, and shared our memories in silence.
For us, the magic of Christmas includes our scheme. For me, remembering Operation: Christmas was a ritual that brought me closer to my sister than any other game we played as kids, in daylight hours. It was our special time together.
And isn't that what Christmas is all about?