Christmas Traditions: The Sibling Tree

Girl Decorating Christmas Tree

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Last night, after two days of insistent urging, we drew names for the Sibling Tree. The Sibling Tree is a favorite tradition in our house (borrowed and adapted from a dear friend), and eagerly anticipated. It works a bit like a Secret Santa gift exchange. Each child puts his or her name in a drawing and pulls one name. He or she must get that person a gift. Sibling tree assignments are top-secret. Gabe and I fund this adventure at $15 per child, adding the excitement of spending other people’s money. We also keep a list of who has who, as inevitably someone forgets who they drew. The children do not get other gifts for each other, which mercifully limits the amount of stuff in the house.

Once names are drawn, the fun starts. The kids begin listening carefully to each other as they think about Christmas lists. Gabe and I, as the know-it-alls in this category, are flooded with suggestions. “I was with Lottie and she really liked the new Lego set at Target. It’s less than $15, but I don’t have her. Can you pass it on?” asks Amy. Jack often randomly runs to his room to write down notes during conversations and then worries he was too obvious. Even the Bigs get into the spirit – I think they enjoy looking at the toys that in their minds, they’re much too old for. Conversations are often steered to favorite colors, top three bands, and action figures already owned vs. desperately wanted. The shopping, live and online, is endless.

Once Thanksgiving is over, we put up the actual Sibling Tree. It is a four-foot artificial calamity, rescued from a yard sale years ago. No matter, it is revered in this house. It lives upstairs in the child’s room – they rotate possession. This is Sara’s year – she’s been reminding us since September. The kids decorate it on their own, choosing favorites from our ornament stash and making paper chains. One year it sported an orange construction paper and glitter tree skirt, another saw Pokémon cards hanging from its branches.

Suspense builds, leading up to the big Christmas morning reveal. Presents begin appearing under the tree, one every several days. They are not labeled with the recipient’s name, and thus are very interesting to all.

In this house, children cannot come downstairs and explore what Santa has left until they are called at 8 a.m. by Gabe or me. This is a rule I brought from the house I grew up in, and one I dearly love. It allows for coffee and teeth brushing and before-the-madness pictures. Gabe had a similar rule, so all the children are used to waiting for hours and hours until they are called (because of course, they wake up at 4 a.m.). It is not a rule the children particularly love, but the Sibling Tree has changed all that.

The Sibling Tree is open for business as soon as all children are awake. The stated rule is that no one can be woken up for the tree, but I think the children ignore that, by mutual agreement. Secrets are spilt and gifts are opened in the wee hours of Christmas morning. Sometimes, gift-givers have chosen games or puzzles to pass the time. Last year, Jack gave Caden a sewing kit that produced two stuffed brother bunnies hugging; by the time the kids were called downstairs, Caden was halfway done.

The Sibling Tree tradition allows us to focus on our immediate family during a time filled with competing demands and extended families. It creates a unique identity and experience for our tribe. The kids spend lots of time thinking of each other, planning and scheming to get the biggest bang for their bucks and enjoy the big reveal and the presents they’ve chosen. Gabe and I wake on Christmas morning to the sound of our children whispering and laughing, happy and making memories together. There’s no better gift to us.