All parents want to give their children a loving, family-centered Christmas, but it’s increasingly difficult in a consumer culture and a marketing machine that targets younger and younger consumers every year. What can we do to resist the cultural pressure in favor of creating a simple but meaningful Christmas for our children? I explored this issue yesterday with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life. You can listen to the entire show here.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Christmas has become much too commercialized. Several years ago I read a book called Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson. It really opened my eyes to the way marketing and advertising professionals have hijacked Christmas, turning it into a 5-month spiral into debt and empty expectation. Historically gift-giving at Christmas was modest and simple. Children usually received small, sentimental gifts — often hand-made. They would not expect mounds of sparkly wrapped presents under their Christmas tree. Giving gifts to adults was of minor significance. Now some spouses are expecting cars on Christmas morning. Profit-making companies would have us believe that joy = big gifts and that the most generous person is the one who gives the fanciest, most impressive gift. Many people run themselves into debt every December because they feel obligated to purchase more gifts for their children than they can afford. They fear their children will feel deprived in some way or feel less loved if we don’t give them what they want. This is a big, fat lie, and we know it.
Not only are we not obligated to buy in such a frenzy, but our children will not think we love them less. At least hopefully not. If they do, well, we have bigger problems than an awful credit card bill. But does that mean we should only give our child a homemade corncob doll for Christmas? Surely not. (Although, my daughter Claire would love to have a corncob doll like Laura Ingalls!) We won’t ruin our child’s soul if we purchase some special gifts that we know he’ll enjoy. While I’ve reduced the amount of money I spend at Christmas and tried to increase our family’s appreciation for the real meaning of Christmas, I do enjoy giving my children gifts. I love thinking about what they might appreciate. Heck, Philip and I love playing with our kids’ toys on Christmas morning! As the Popcaks pointed on the show, giving gifts at Christmas is symbolic of the gift God gave to the world in the infant Jesus. Giving gifts can be a true joy and a sign of Christian generosity, but we should never feel we need to spend more than we can manage or that we have some obligation to give somebody a gift if we don’t care to give one.
I think the significant difference in Catholic homes should be in the emphasis we place on Advent and the experiences we offer our children. What do we talk about during Advent? What do we hear our kids talking about? If discussions primarily revolve around gifts – specifically, what the kids want for Christmas – then our focus might need a little adjusting. Children may begin absorbing the cultural message that all their wildest dreams will be fulfilled on Christmas morning as long as they have the right parents. The Christmas machine mentality is a lie anyway. Even if our kids received all the toys and gaming units they could imagine for Christmas, they would be disappointed in the end. They’d feel a little let down and empty after playing with those toys for a while.
That’s because joy ≠ big gifts. The only true joy is found in union with God and communion with family and friends. It might sound a little corny but it’s true. God created us through love and for love; we will only find fulfillment in giving and receiving love. If generosity is working for the good of the other, then generosity toward our children means we must be prudent and on guard during Advent and Christmas. Let’s not let the Marketing Machine sidetrack us from what God wants us to experience with our children.
I think children can become addicted to the anticipation they feel when they see the ads and commercials with fancy, bright toys. They think, if I had that toy, I would be as happy as that perfectly coifed, grinning kid in the commercial. The Christmas-morning-dream-come-true message is surely irresistible for kids, unless we resist it ourselves through our example and by committing ourselves to creating something different for our babies. Over the years, as I’ve gained confidence as a mother and received the grace of deepening faith, I can see that I’ve focused far less on material gifts at Christmas and more on the anticipation of meaningful family activities and traditions.
In our home, we don’t dive into Advent or Christmas on the first day of Advent. We open the season gently. We take out our Jesse Tree on the first day of Advent, but no other décor. As the weeks unfold, more décor appears, and I try to make some of it with the kids. When we bring out the Nativity Set (around the second week of Advent), we don’t take out all the pieces at once. We only put out Mary and the Angel Gabriel. As the days pass and the story of the nativity unfolds, we bring out the appropriate pieces. The set is not only for display; I allow the children to play with it. It’s made of lovely felted wool and the small children enjoy holding the pieces. We move Mary with Joseph around the house as they make their way to Bethlehem. My children all love this tradition and feel more connected to the events of the nativity when they experience this way.
We have special music, books, and movies that only appear during Advent. Some of these selections are like old friends whom we greet fondly every year. My smallest children love the stories The Clown of God and Merry Christmas, Strega Nona both by Tomie DePaola. We always watch the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the evening of Christmas Day. Even though we know the entire script by heart by now, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the long-suffering George Bailey and Clarence his guardian angel.
Every year for many years now we’ve planned a Boxing Day Outing. (Boxing Day is the day after Christmas in England where my husband grew up.) We talk with the children early in Advent about what they’d like to do on Boxing Day. It’s usually something modest, like a trip to the zoo, a museum, a movie a theater, or a hike. But a few times we’ve gone on an overnight trip somewhere. Our kids are always looking forward to the day after Christmas because we do something special together.
These traditions give our children a different kind of anticipation from the one materialism offers. They are looking forward to moments of loving connection with family; they experience the intoxicating joy of experiencing familiar smells and hearing familiar sounds. When those old books come out, when the familiar ornaments shimmer on the tree, when Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” they experience again something that brought them enjoyment many times before. They are anticipating their own histories in a way.
I did something new this year that has really brought the spirit of the season home for us. I asked the children to think of a gift they’ve received from God, and then in some way to give that gift back to Jesus for his birthday. For example, my son Dominic said that God has given him the gift of courage, as he’s very brave about climbing and doing physically daring things. However, even though I teach the class, he becomes very unsettled during CCD, because it’s a large and loud class. Sometimes he cries because he becomes so overwhelmed. So Dominic said he would give Jesus the gift of courage and try to be extra strong during CCD. He even told his class about it.
This year I also involved my children in my own gift-giving plans. Considering what another person might enjoy and then finding a way to get it without going over my budget is something I never really shared much with them. My daughter Claire and son Dominic went with me when I selected the gifts for their cousins. They enjoyed helping me pick them out and talking about what sort of things Maddie and Olivia like to do. This attention to the experience and feelings of another person is an important aspect of empathy. Not only did we find some nifty gifts for my nieces, but I enjoyed this special time with my two middle children.
I think these family experiences and traditions are anchors in my children’s lives. They make this season rich and meaningful for them. Of course, opening a few gifts on Christmas morning, and enjoying them while my annual Christmas morning sticky buns are baking, can also be one of those traditions. I can’t help smiling when I hear the laughter and squeals of delight as my children open their gifts. I love the chaos of wrapping paper flying everywhere and watching how my children explore one another’s gifts. I just don’t want the message of the gift of the Incarnation to be drowned out by the Great Marketing Machine or by the insidious siren call of greed. Hopefully with God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit my family will continue to make progress!
I hope you and your families enjoy a blessed and joyous Christmas Day!
Image Credit: Fasphotographic on photos.com