Christmas

Figuring out what time to open gifts on Christmas is up to you and your family.
Shutterstock

Turns Out, There’s No Strict Timing Rule On When To Open Christmas Gifts

But if you have early risers, do you hold the line or give in?

by Sarah Jaffe

My parents always seemed to purposefully move in slow motion on Christmas. They would turn on the tree lights, put on Christmas music, set up the video camera, and pour themselves a cup of coffee before it was time to open gifts. My siblings and I would be around the corner in a hallway, the unwrapped presents (from Santa) and stockings so close but not visible. “Not yet!” they’d call, as they did some last, agonizingly unimportant thing, like getting milk for their coffee or fetching the newspaper. Finally, after what was, in retrospect, maybe 3 minutes, we’d hear “now!” and be allowed in.

Like many things, this seemed ridiculous to me as a child — just let us in already! — and made a lot of sense to me once I became a parent. For one thing, I know now that anticipation of a thing increases enjoyment, and is itself part of what makes an experience fun. I also now understand the necessity of coffee.

In households that celebrate Christmas, Christmas morning is frequently a battle between parents who want to sleep in, and kids who have waited all month, all year, and can’t wait a second longer. So, who should win? What time should you open gifts on Christmas?

What Time Do Most People Wake Up on Christmas?

In 2015, The Upshot analyzed data captured by the fitness trackers of 500,000 people in 34 countries, and compared which countries averaged the earliest and latest rise times on Christmas morning. The earliest risers tended to live in countries in the Southern hemisphere (where it’s lighter in the morning because Christmas falls in the summer) or in countries where Christmas isn’t widely celebrated and is mostly just a normal workday. The latest-risers lived in European and South American countries where the Christmas festivities traditionally happen on Christmas Eve. In the article, Claire Cane Miller writes that “most Roman Catholic countries sleep in latest, probably because many people stay out later on Christmas Eve, often attending midnight Mass.”

A person in the United States on Christmas Day averages a decent wake-up time of 7:35 am, 50 minutes later than our average wakeup time on a typical day. Crucially, however, this dataset included everyone, not just parents. The best parent-specific data I could find was a survey of 2,000 parents, conducted by a mattress company in the UK, which found that the average child wakes up at 6:44 am on Christmas Day. They even turned that data into a calculator, you can plug in your child’s age and location (within the UK) and it spits out your child’s likely wake up time. Why does a child in Scotland sleep 20 minutes later than a child in London? Who can say— but the calculator says it’s so.

Anastasiia Krivenok/Moment/Getty Images

When Should You Open Presents?

Data aside, if you have kids who are up at dawn and begging to open presents, do you send them back to bed, or let them at it? Kimberly Hensel, a Seattle-area mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and 1-year-old, described a typical Christmas morning scene in her house: the oldest wakes up at 6 a.m., then excitedly wakes up both his siblings and his parents. “We open at 6:30-ish, and we’re exhausted because we stayed up putting some crazy together into the wee hours of the morning,” she said.

A common tradition is a middle-of-the-road approach, that differentiates stockings and one gift (sometimes a “Santa gift”) from the rest of the presents. Some parents allow stockings as fair game as soon as their kids are awake (one vividly wrote that “stockings get disemboweled as soon as they're awake”), while others had clear rules around not opening stockings, or anything else, until the parents were awake and at least somewhat caffeinated. Phased gift opening, where breakfast happened after some, but not all, gifts were opened is a common way way to have a loose schedule for the day — but when that gift opening starts varied greatly from family to family.

What About the Non-Gift Parts of Christmas?

A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 46% of people in the U.S. celebrate Christmas primarily as a religious holiday. Families with young kids who celebrate the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday had some thoughts about how to balance out the gift extravaganza. It’s common for churches to hold a service that’s particularly aimed at children on Christmas Eve. But some families do attend church on Christmas morning with children, though I didn’t talk to any who did so before the presents were opened. Stephanie Murray, who is Catholic and whose two children are both under 5, said that they open presents before attending church “because we don’t hate ourselves.” Tiffany Lawrence, a mom of elementary school aged kids in the southeast U.S. said that she begins Christmas morning the same way her family of origin did: “We take a moment to discuss our gratitude for Jesus’ birth and what he came to do in the world. Say a prayer of thanks, then let them tear into the gifts. Breakfast after.”

The Bottom Line On When To Open Gifts On Christmas

The ideal time to discuss your expectations for how Christmas morning will unfold is before small children are jumping on your bed when it’s still dark out. Even kids who normally sleep in can throw their schedule out the door on Christmas morning. Setting out whatever bright- line rules you want to follow in advance can make the morning at least a little less of a negotiation. No going into the present room without parents was a common rule; several parents endorsed the rule “kids don’t open presents until the coffee is ready.” Some parents had clear rules for “start time.” One said: “My kids are 10 and 6, and the rule is downstairs no earlier than 6:30.” Another said, “No going downstairs before you wake up mom and dad, and it can’t be before 7.” (An OK-to-wake clock might be a good option for kids who can’t yet tell time.)

But you don’t have to have rules; plenty of parents endorsed the “embrace the chaos” approach. One parent wrote “when they’re up, it’s present time.” Another said that if his kids were up at a ridiculous hour and begging to start opening, “I let them — as my parents did with me and my siblings. It was crazy and that was part of the fun. Now they sleep in later than me and I’m glad I let them when they were small.”