Two-year-old Melinda (dressed in teal) with her sister, Susan, and parents, Elaine and Ray French, in New Orleans
Melinda Gates

When I was little, I could always tell it was Christmastime by the fact that I was suddenly allowed to be exactly where I wasn't usually supposed to be.

At home in Dallas, it was the living room—the fanciest room in our little house and the one that was ordinarily off-limits to my siblings and me. But that was where my parents set up our Sears, Roebuck and Co. Christmas tree every year, so it was also where my sister and I spent long December hours lying on the floor in the glow of the lights we'd helped string, soaking up the magic of it all.

The holiday spirit was allowed into every room of my grandparents' house in New Orleans too. Most of the year, my grandmother— like a lot of other grandmothers—was very particular about who and what was allowed where. But during the holidays, she even let us test out our new roller skates on her gleaming terrazzo floors, a memory I know I will treasure forever. It was one more example of the lesson we learned both at home and at church: Christmas is a day that stands apart from all others.

Now that I have three children of my own, it's clear to me that my parents and grandparents knew exactly what they were doing. By allowing us to break a few rules, they not only ensured we had fun as a family, but they also taught us that some occasions are so special that they deserve to transcend the ordinary business of everyday life. That sacred time of year has always felt full of possibility to me—and the bighearted way my family came together around it is one reason why.

Christmas is still my favorite holiday, and I've tried to keep the traditions Bill and I grew up with alive for our own family. We've also started a few ourselves. Every year, we observe something I call "closing the doors for Christmas." As soon as our three kids are out of school, we pull back from our usual routines and spend that time with family instead.

Some days behind those closed doors are carefully planned, while others have no agenda at all. The important thing is that we're together— and that the usual rules don't apply. When the kids were little and wanted to fill a hall closet with packing peanuts to dive in, I channeled my grandmother and cheered them on. (I just vacuumed them off on their way out so they wouldn't track little bits of foam with them.) The fact that they still talk about that day is how I know we've succeeded in making the holidays a source of treasured memories for them too.

Along the way, I've learned that when you close the doors for Christmas, you open the door to another dimension of the holiday. Turning off distractions allows you to be more present for the moments that matter—and to give this special occasion the space in your heart it deserves. It's the perfect way to celebrate the end of a year and set your intentions for the next one.

And for me at least, it's a chance to recapture the warmth of the twinkling lights from my childhood and see them cast their glow on the people I love most in the world. Even now that I understand how much effort goes into creating a holiday like that, there are still moments when it feels like magic.

Melinda Gates was born in Dallas. She is a businesswoman, philanthropist, and cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.