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Deciphering a mother's secret Christmas code

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, NPR's Rachel Martin is taking us inside some of our listeners' favorite holiday traditions. Today, it's about deciphering a mother's Christmas code.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: If you have been a kid waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve, you know how hard it is to resist checking under the tree just a little bit early.

SAMANTHA HELM: My older sister is a present-peeker - always has been, always will be.

R MARTIN: That's 32-year-old Samantha Helm (ph). And growing up outside of Baltimore, she says it didn't take long for her mom to get wise about what was happening.

HELM: So my mom stopped writing the names on on the box and started writing little codes for herself on the back of the box. And they were originally really, really simple - started with our initials.

R MARTIN: But Samantha's sister was undeterred. She cracked the code. So the following year, Mom had to up her game.

HELM: Then it was just numbers, and you could tell it was birth order. But then they got a little bit more complicated.

R MARTIN: Samantha and her brother soon joined their sister in her sleuthing. Eventually, the rule became clear. Before they could open their gifts, the siblings all had to work together to decipher their mother's increasingly elaborate codes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R MARTIN: She says her siblings fought about most things growing up, but when it came to deciphering their mom's Christmas gifts...

HELM: Gosh, I don't know what it is, but it's something about this activity that we have - we've never fought over. Everyone's just very eager to always do it together.

R MARTIN: And over the years, she says, her mom's codes have gotten even harder.

HELM: She did names of lakes in Minnesota. My parents are - live in Minnesota now. And so we had to go get out, like, an almanac. And we did some Googling. And we figured out that they're the deepest - five deepest lakes. And so we put them in order of depth. And then we figured out it was the distance we each lived from our mother in order.

R MARTIN: Their mom's tradition has been going on for 20 years now. And this Christmas Eve, Samantha Helm and her siblings will be back in the living room, inspecting their presents with notebooks and laptops, making spreadsheets, and throwing out ideas until something finally clicks.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.