How did your childhood Christmas expectations match up against the reality?

Christmas morning: the expectations you had as a child vs. the reality

No matter how old or cynical you may be, it’s hard to feel calm and centred in the run-up to a massive global holiday starring both Rudolph and Santa. Christmas is a time in which reality is suspended, schedules are disrupted and we all want to believe in magic – even if it’s just a way of getting through a day that begins with chocolate coins for breakfast and ends with a rail-replacement bus service. Bah humbug.

However, as we become slightly more grown up, we begin to realise that Christmas mornings never look quite like they do in the movies. Here’s what we dreamed about when we were kids and what actually happens, with a few tips for keeping the magic alive – whether there are little people in your life or you’re just young at heart.

Christmas morning

Expectation: You’d wake up to a bulging stocking…


Reality: It’ll be a threadbare pillowcase, if you’re lucky 

Christmas morning

In our dreams, most of us would leave festive, felted stockings by the fireplace so Father Christmas could fill them up after coming down the chimney. In reality, we don’t even know anyone who has a chimney any more, and hanging them on the radiator doesn’t seem Christmassy at all.

Maura, a 34 year-old primary school teacher, says that having two children under the age of six has given her a very different understanding of stockings. ‘When I was little, I’d get really grumpy if I thought Santa had given me a duff stocking, and before I had kids I vowed to make them the most fabulous, festive stockings ever. Life, however, inevitably gets in the way.’

She says that she’s learning how to get maximum magic with minimal effort, however. ‘Bulky items are great. Last year, my eldest loved a panic-bought bucket and spade set, I think because it took up so much space in the stocking that it was really satisfying! Anything colourful that comes in its own wrapping is easy for me, and is usually a hit with them. It doesn’t need to be expensive. I think they just want stuff that’s big and bright.”


Expectation: Everyone is going to notice how much effort you’ve put into buying their gift

Reality: Yeah, not so much…but it doesn’t really matter

The perfect present

You might want to give yourself a bit of a break when it comes to them as well. According to a study published last November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, thoughtful gives don’t necessarily lead to greater appreciation in the receiver and those receiving gifts generally like the presents that reflect the personality of the giver the best.

The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found. In other words - give yourself a break and don’t spend hours trying to find the perfect present, because science says that a gift that reminds someone of the giver - perfect, wonderful you, in this case - is the sort of thing that they’ll appreciate the most. Which is rather sweet, when you think about it, isn’t it?

children and gifts

Expectation: You’d pull back the curtains to reveal a beautiful snowy view

Reality: 50 shades of grey

White Christmas

Even when it does snow in Britain, the effect is typically more like dandruff on a suit jacket than a deep, crisp and even covering. Nonetheless, every year we send snow-covered Christmas cards and hope that a Poundland Lapland will magically appear in our garden. This year doesn’t look like it’s going to be too different, with the World Meteorological Organisation predicting some of the warmest weather on record this December.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? We say embrace the weather and, if you want a winter weather experience for the family, a festive trip to a skating rink is a great way to make things a little more magical; find your nearest rink here. Alternatively, invest in some soft, inexpensive, throwable snowballs or an inflatable melting snowman for a safe white Christmas indoors.

kids in snow

Expectation: The house would look like elves sneaked in to decorate it

Reality: The house is full of scraps of wrapping paper and pine needles from the tree


As if Father Christmas and his crew didn’t have enough to do, when we were children many of us believed the house would somehow look extra-Christmassy on Christmas Day, and even though the tree had been up for a week or two, there would be extra decorations, proving that magic was all around us. Unless you counted the enormous pile of newspapers stacked up by the comfy chair that Grandpa had claimed for the duration of the holidays, Santa never brought any bonus decking.

But you can! Interiors writer and stylist Becky Sunshine tells us, ‘It’s all about candles! Candles! Candles! The more the merrier, I say. From tea lights to big, church-style pillars, I love to jumble up sizes and colours, and plonk them on side tables, bookshelves, the dining table, windowsills –anywhere, basically. Candleholders don’t have to be pricey, either. My most beloved ones are charity shop finds, vintage bits from car-boot sales and even old teacups. Lovely, flickering light – there’s nothing more elegant, romantic and Christmassy, as far as I’m concerned. My other favourite instant-Christmas hit is pinching a few long strands of ivy from my mum’s garden and weaving it around the mantelpiece. Holly with berries is good too, if you can find it. It’s the cheapest way to create festive magic.’


Expectation: Santa would have left evidence!

Reality: Santa will remember to leave evidence, as long as there’s treats involved

Christmas magic

Did you ever wonder why your parents insisted on leaving Santa a glass of sherry and a mince pie instead of milk and cookies? Do you still wonder why? No, thought not. If you’ve got small children, cutting up a carrot and saying, ‘Rudolph must have been hungry!’ is an inexpensive way to bring a bit of thrilling Christmas magic to their morning, and unless you have strong views about what you tell your kids, the effort-to-reward ratio is excellent.

Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says, ‘Happy memories usually consist of fun, the odd calamity, a relative who will have been at the sherry too early in the day, and gifts that mattered less than the delight of watching the Christmas pudding go up in flames or even the cracker toy that kept kids occupied longer then their presents.’ It doesn’t matter how old you are or with whom you’re celebrating, Christmas magic happens when something takes you by surprise. It’s natural for us all to have great expectations for the big day, but the best parts are usually the bits you couldn’t have imagined.

Mince pie

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