December 25th, 2009
06:46 PM ET

Dear President Obama #340: Setting the Santa trap

Reporter's Note: President Obama is vacationing with his family in Hawaii for the holidays. And yet I continue with my daily letter to him. Who knows? Perhaps he forgot to take a book for the beach.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

As I write this it is very late Christmas Eve night, or very early Christmas morning, depending on how you look at it. The whole family is asleep after a frantic final day of getting ready. We all finished the last of our shopping by early afternoon; in time to rush out to our traditional Christmas Eve dinner at a favorite restaurant, then off to church, then back home to wrap the presents we bought. Actually our two daughters had their wrapping done much earlier than we did, so they pretty much cooled out while Mom and Dad labored away with the tape and scissors.

But now it is all done, including the final touch of every night before Christmas in our house: The setting of the trap.

This takes a little explanation. Back when we lived in Colorado, like most new parents, we went completely nuts trying to make Christmas morning the most dazzling surprise in all of kid-dom. We spent weeks selecting the right presents, wrapping them in bright papers, and arranging them around the tree after putting our first-born to bed so that she would be speechless upon seeing the magnificence in the morning.

Granted, she was very small, and could be pretty easily impressed. We probably could have given her the boxes and she would have been just as happy. Nonetheless, on her third Christmas, just about thirty minutes after my wife and I had finished tacking on the last bow and putting everything in place; just after we had finally nodded off to sleep; we were startled awake by the sound of tiny footsteps in the hallway.

“He came!” were the words that floated to us out of the darkness. “Santa! He came!”

With the coolness of international spies, we jumped out of our bed, ran into the hallway, and stood there sputtering like Model T’s for a few moments as we saw our diminutive daughter peering over the railing at the dark outlines of Toyland sprawling beneath the living room tree. This was not supposed to happen. For all of our expense, preparation, and carefully cultivated holiday exhaustion, the one true payoff was supposed to be the morning rush of a happy child, with dawn’s light streaming in the windows, to rip paper and celebrate each new gift with a squeal of delight. That’s what we wanted. We’d earned it. And dammit, we weren’t going to let her tear it away after all our effort.

“No, he hasn’t,” my wife said. “You’re dreaming. Go to bed.” We hustled her back to her room, tucked her in so tightly a young Houdini could not have wriggled free, and then we had an idea: Why not hang a strand of jingle bells from her doorknob so we’ll hear if she tries to go roaming again?

It worked like a charm. Well before dawn the bells tinkled lightly. “Back to bed,” we called out. Twenty-minutes later. Jingle. “It’s too early!” Five minutes more. Jingle. “Alright, alright. Let’s go.” We really thought nothing more of it, but apparently she did, and sometime between that Christmas and the next one, our little girl became convinced that what we had done was set a trap for her, and that this was some sort of game. “You won’t catch me this year,” she grinned as we pushed her covers under her chin that night, clearly delighted that Christmas Eve night was evolving into not merely an emotionally charged wait for the wonders of the morning, but also a battle of wits.

So the traps grew more complex. And as her younger sister came along and joined the game, so did their joint efforts to defeat them. Mind you, they showed no inclination to actually even attempt to go downstairs ahead of us anymore. They quickly accepted that such a maneuver would simply be rude, and spoil the fun for everyone. No, this became about the trap itself and their attempts to best it.

The traps began to involve not just one clump of jingle bells, but many. Precariously balanced coat hangers, and aluminum cans were added to the mix; often all strung up in the air on ribbons attached to the girls’ bedroom doorknobs and criss-crossed in the hallway like something from Mission Impossible IV.

One year we entirely cover their doorways with wrapping paper so they could not see the configuration of the trap. Another time we attached a motion sensor to the ribbons to sound an alarm at the first wiggle. The girls fought back gamely; smuggling walkie talkies into their rooms to communicate and coordinate their movements; helping each other manipulate whatever slack might exist in the ribbons to gain an advantage. They went to bed with scissors hidden under their pillows, and yardsticks tucked under their mattresses. In one particularly memorable year, they used a skateboard attached to a cord to roll a small video camera down the hall, then pulled it back to study the intelligence it had gathered.

Sometimes it was all for naught. In the darkness of pre-dawn, my wife and I would hear a sudden crash of jingle bells and exclamations of surprise, and we would smile beneath our blankets at the knowledge that we had won. But just as often, we would hear not even a whisper. A seemingly brilliant trap would have been fashioned deep in the night and we would have gone to bed convinced it could not be beaten, only to find the girls beaming at our bedside, shredded ribbons in their hands, and the dreaded jingle bells being shaken over our heads like rabbit pelts as the sun rose. At such moments, it was quite clear that their presents beneath the tree were of far less importance, than this wonderful game that we had all grown to look forward to each Christmas Eve night.

So you see, the whole thing was really just an accident, but it has become a tradition that we all adore. We usually start trading boasts and challenges shortly after Thanksgiving, and there is a lot of giggling and corrections of any given family member’s recollection of the last round.

Anyway, like I said, as I write this it is very late. The girls, who are both teenagers now, have been asleep for hours, and now my wife is too. I need to head that way. But before I do, I’ll double check this year’s trap one more time. It’s an elegant offering I think: A simple rigging of a ribbon over an open hallway door, with each end tightly tied to each of the girls’ bedroom doors, the whole thing laden with coat hangers that are so barely balanced even a tremor in the ribbon will send them crashing down. But that’s not the devious part. If they make it past that, I have a piece of fish line running across the hall about ankle high, which is tied to a heavy strand of jingle bells perched on a shelf just outside of our door. Even if the girls defeat the coat hangers, they will almost certainly stumble into the jingle bell trip wire as they celebrate their seeming victory.

The tree is glowing. I’m going to sleep now. I think I’ve got them.

Merry Christmas.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Dulcie - Denver

    Tom, if I ever had any doubt that you are one Cool Dude, this story totally removes it.

    I treasure your stories of family and memories. This year, I haven't had much of a Christmas. Friends and co-workers are suffering through some very serious non-economic problems while I'm recovering from surgery.

    Your story brought a much needed smile to my face and a nice warm feeling in my heart. Bless you and the whole Foreman clan.

    December 26, 2009 at 12:00 pm |
  2. Annie Kate


    That sounds like a wonderful way to start Christmas. – reminds me of the time when my two oldest children were 2 and 5 and were hyper-wired with excitement for Santa to come. Evidently they were not as asleep as we thought they were and some of the toys emitted some strange noises and not very quietly either! About the time we were finishing up we heard two sets of small feet hit the floor and the screaming of "Santa's come" and knew Had to round them off at the pass or they would see things before they should. I ran around to their bedroom and kept saying "shhhh.. be quieter or you'lll scare Santa away before he gets done and he doesn't come back! Eyes big with wonder and a little nervous about blowing Christams, they climbed back in their beds and I snuggled up to them and we all whispered like a gang of criminals. Their father got done, had his Santa suit on from a party earlier in the evening and pulled on his big boots and stomped out into the snow in the back of the house – doing his loud and merry Ho-Ho-Hos and calling his reindeer. This proved too much for the children and they ran to the window to see Santa and the reindeer. Of course reindeer and Santa are magic so they go very fast and my children didn't get a glimpse but somewhere coincidentally above in the winter sky an airplane as flying over and one of its red lights was blinking off and on – my son pointed it out and said there is Santa and Rudolph right there. They believed in Santa for a good long time too because of that night Its a nice memory.....yours tops it by far and I appreciate you sharing yours!

    December 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm |
  3. Terry Horn

    Well now , theres a warm thought for christmas, thanks Norma.

    December 25, 2009 at 6:52 pm |
  4. Sharon

    You have the right approach. Keep the dreams and fun alive: this will be a memory your girls will treasure and probably pass onto their children when they become parents.

    Who won this year?

    December 25, 2009 at 5:46 pm |
  5. Hong Xiaowan


    December 25, 2009 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Norma Labno

    Dear Tom: 12/25/09

    I wish EVERY CHILD IN THE WORLD could look forward to loving preparations on Christmas Eve. & stunning delights on Christmas


    norma from nv

    December 25, 2009 at 10:13 am |