When The Box Was The Present (Not The Object Inside It)

People often express sympathy about my twins’ December birthday. They say, “Oh, the poor things. Their birthday is too close to Christmas!” When my daughters arrived at only 26 weeks, before the winter solstice instead of closer to the spring equinox, the fact that it was close to Christmas was the least of our worries related to their extremely premature birth. Six years later, though, it’s our only one (thankfully!).

In households like ours, ones that have twins and also celebrate Christmas, December can be a challenging month. First, each twin feels cheated out of having her own special day. Second, like many other Sagittarians and Capricorns, they often receive combined birthday/Christmas presents, which tends to result in both days producing fewer total gifts than expected. Third, because they are twins, many gift-givers expect them to share whatever presents they receive. It’s unseemly to complain about sharing a limited number of gifts, particularly when so many families live in poverty, but it’s unfair to expect young children to change their behavior in response to a subject they hardly grasp.*

We don’t want to “cheat” our children out of presents, but allowing them to have too many presents all at once is a problem, too. Last year, in Two Types of Christmas, I described my twins’ reactions to their gifts, which ranged from disappointment (due to the books!) to delight. As this time of year approaches again, I find myself longing for the days when my daughters loved the wrapping paper and the cardboard boxes more than the objects inside. Wrapping paper became clothes and capes, the tubes became instruments, and boxes became hats, homes, and boats.

And sometimes these transformations still happen.

My children haven’t lost their interest in imaginative play; however, they are more interested in playing with the same toys their classmates have. We limit our daughters’ exposure to overt advertising (by streaming videos, for example, rather than watching cable), but those messages are as contagious as the latest cold virus. My twins are well aware of the so-called “hottest things.” When I was a kid in the ‘80s, that list included cabbage patch dolls, Rainbow Bright, My little Pony, and Transformers. Now, the list still contains Transformers and ponies, but I don’t recognize anything else on there. (My husband has concluded Nickelodeon is conspiring against the English language by giving shows names like “Power Rangers Super Megaforce,” a title which includes three superlatives. He says, “For the next season, will they merely add Ultimate, or will they jump on the Literally bandwagon?”)

To celebrate simpler, more imaginative activities, I read Antoinette Portis’ Not a Box with my daughters. It’s a sparsely worded and illustrated book about a creative little rabbit who does not sit in, stand on, or wear a box. Rather, in his mind, he’s driving a car, standing at the peak of a mountain, and being a robot. All three of my children enjoyed this book and identified with the rabbit. As M. announced gleefully, “A box can be anything you imagine!”

For example, it can be a boat that’s sprung a leak in crocodile infested waters:

Z (middle): “Oh no! Oh no!”

M (right): “I’ll take care of the crocodile!”

S (left): “Go away crocodile! We have to fix the leak!”

S. subsequently led an expedition into the thick forests of the kitchen in search of masking tape.

It is Not a Box_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

It’s important to remember that a cardboard box can be even better than a new toy.** It’s a lesson not only for children, but also for well-meaning parents who feel pressured to buy everything their children want.

*As I mentioned in From Glaciers to Icebergs, when my daughters see a dilapidated house, they “don’t yet understand what [it] probably means for the family that lives or used to live there. As far as they know, it is as sad as the bare tree [in our front yard], even though our magnolia will bloom again, while the houses we pass on our way to Center City will only fall further into disrepair.”

**This theme reminds me of The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell. It is a clever and touching book that I highly recommend (see my post, A Gift for Children Who Feel Entitled To Everything).


  1. The gifts I always look for, for the children on my list are either books or gifts that inspire creativity and involvement.

  2. Mother’s birthday was Christmas Day and she suffered from the same thing. We always made a point of buying and wrapping birthday and Christmas presents but it still ended up with her getting everything at the same time.

  3. Yes! They are houses and castles and cars and time machines… last Christmas, I bought my nephew a gussied-up version of this at the drug store – $20 for essentially a huge cardboard box with the outlines of a rocket ship already drawn on it. I couldn’t just gift him an old refrigerator box, so this was the next best thing in my secret Aunt plan to nurture his imagination… but I don’t think it ever got played with, not once. Booooo.

    1. My kids love the huge cardboard boxes with outlines on them! Maybe you can do it with him? Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement to get a kid to completely change his/her mind about an activity. It’s a really fun activity!

  4. I can remember when I used to count my presents as they appeared under the tree (my parents didn’t always just do it the night before). Looking back that sounds awful, but somewhere down the line I got really involved in the gift buying part with my parents. I actually enjoy giving instead of receiving now because of it. I thought that was a really neat way to curb my selfishness, whether or not it would work for other kids I don’t know, but I loved it! I was always so proud to say, this is from me (even though they always paid, of course). Anywho, I hope your girls have a great birthday and Christmas!

    1. That sounds like a great idea. This year, my girls have been very good about giving away unopened toys and clothes this holiday season (and at other points of the year). I’ll definitely try to involve them more in the gift buying, too. Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. Thanks AMB – I need to buy my boss a present in our firm’s Secret Santa. I’m sure he’d love a box 🙂 which has a greater value than my Christmas bonus 😦

  6. I’ve come to despise the crass commercialism of Christmas (I know I’m not the only one). Early on, I tried to institute a homemade Christmas, where real thought and effort were put into the gifts and time the family spent together. Worked okay for the adults, but the kids? Severely depressed over getting, say, a pair of hand-knit mittens as opposed to a PS3 game. 😦 Our values have been warped by commercialism.

    1. Yes, the commercialism of Christmas is appalling. A homemade Christmas sounds like a great idea! I think my kids would probably be disappointed by a pair of hand-knit mittens at first, but then those mittens would become part of an elaborate imaginary game. Kids really can play with anything.

  7. Best. Picture. Ever! (And story.)

    My birthday is four days before Christmas and it’s always been a struggle for friends and family. As I’ve gotten older it’s bothered me less, I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for something a little more expensive and say it’s for both. The hardest thing I had growing up was that my birthday was SO close to Christmas I didn’t really have a lot of birthday parties as people would already be travelling for the holiday’s and we were never in school 😦 It didn’t phase me too much and I created my own traditions that fit my personality better like going to a movie by myself on my birthday before the craziness of the holidays actually started with ALL MY FAMILY.

    1. Plus you can make really strange demands! One year I asked that everything for my birthday be wrapped in solid green wrapping paper. Everyone was always super careful about making sure b-day wasn’t wrapped in Christmas paper and that year threw everyone for a loop.

    2. Yeah, I can see how having a birthday that close to Christmas would be tough! My husband’s birthday is December 31st, which really bothered him when he was a kid. He could never have a birthday on his actual birthday. He’d say, “everyone is having a party on my birthday, but it’s never for me!” He’s better about it now.

      I hope you have a very nice birthday this year!

  8. My cats are intrigued by boxes. I wonder if they too imagine being somewhere else? I know a young child that has a Dec. 25th birthday. He is very “ungrateful” about his presents because most people only buy him one. So in away, like you said at this age that they don’t understand much, I can understand a little.

    1. My cats like boxes too! I can only imagine how difficult it is for a child who is actually born on December 25th. My girls’ birthday is today, but even the two week buffer doesn’t stop it from conflicting with the holidays (there are always holiday party conflicts and fewer presents overall).

  9. My oldest daughter has her birthday on December 27th, so I can definitely relate to the Christmas/birthday dilemma. So far she’s been a good sport about it, but I can’t help but wonder if we should just celebrate it some other time of year–it definitely loses something in the hectic rush of the holidays.

    1. I’ve always wanted a half birthday so that I could get summer clothes! I never got summer clothes for my birthday, plus you get everything in one go.

      1. I would love to celebrate my girls’ birthday at a different time of the year. In fact, because my twins were in the NICU for 78 days, we used to celebrate their discharge day (Feb. 26th) as though it were their birthday. The girls don’t really buy it, though. They want to have the bigger celebration on or near their actual birthday.

        1. Yeah – wait until they’re older they’ll appreciate it 🙂 But they’ll also learn to appreciate seeing family around their birthday. I know I can appreciate it a lot more now looking back.

          1. They might! Their birthday is actually today, which is two weeks away from Christmas. Still, that’s not quite far enough. The overall number of presents tend to get reduced and scheduling a party is a huge hassle because of holiday party conflicts. When they’re older, I think they’re going to want a birthday during late spring or summer. I’m born in March, when it’s usually just a bit too cold to be outside. I always wanted outdoor parties.

    2. Hi Beth! Your daughter’s birthday is closer to Christmas than my twins’ birthday (which is today–even a two week buffer doesn’t seem to stop people from buying one gift for both events). I’m glad to hear that your daughter is a good sport about it. My husband’s birthday is December 31st, and he had a tough time with it as a kid. He never celebrated his birthday in school and never had a party on his actual birthday (in his words, “everyone had a party on my birthday, but it was never for me.”). With our girls, one of the problems is trying to schedule their birthday party so that it doesn’t conflict with holiday parties. There’s always a conflict.

  10. I love that your kids can still play without being told *how* to play. That seems to be something that isn’t all that appreciated or encouraged anymore.

    I was buying a gift for our friend’s daughter and had the hardest time finding a box of Lego that didn’t have specific parts that made one thing. I remember the point of Lego being that you made whatever you came up with, there were no rules. I don’t even want to get started on the fact that all the stuff was purple and pink if it was anything that I thought she’d be interested in. I felt like I won the lottery when I finally found a box of multicolored Lego with no rules!

    Yay, boxes and imagination! 🙂 I hope your kids keep playing that way for a long time.

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