The holiday season suffuses many of us with a feeling of warmth and anticipation, family and abundance. Personally, I recall with pleasurable nostalgia the Christmas trees of my childhood: I fondly remember how my family would sit patiently beneath the boughs of our gaily lit evergreen as we went about the custom of opening presents, one by one. I remember the scent of spruce in my nostrils, the crackle of wrapping paper, the bursting open of packages, and the expressions of delight spreading infectiously over my family members’ faces. Naturally, when I married and had children of my own, I strove to repeat this experience of ritualized giving.
In ancient times, the holiday season grew out of the Winter Solstice, the moment of the shortest day of the year and hence that of greatest darkness across the earth. In an instinctive attempt to counter the gloom, both outer and inner, all humans—pagans, Christians and Jews alike— invented great celebrations, from the Festival of Lights when the Jewish people refused to give up hope, to Christmas day, the Christians’ celebration of the birth of a child who would redeem the darkened world.
In the modern day, however, another force has slowly taken hold of these holidays and worked to supplant the more ancient motives for the festive season. This new sentiment still relies on the three virtues at the core of the ancient holiday spirit—giving, hope, and the innocent awe of the child—but moves them in troubling directions. The holidays have evolved to become synonymous with material consumption, especially by kids. Unsurprisingly, the situation often goes awry, with parents running up big bills, buying both their children and themselves lavish presents, which only foment in their kids unreasonable expectations.
How did this happen? This trend toward lavish buying began perhaps innocently enough in the spirit of giving gifts, especially to children, as a way for parents to demonstrate the depth of their love. Also, since we often spend so much of the year working, skimping, and saving, it seems wonderful, for at least a few weeks, to go overboard on spending, giving, and receiving ourselves.
Yet the children themselves play into this secular trend and now are driving it as never before. How have they become such active players in what constitutes for many families a buying frenzy? The answer to this question is buried in the centrality of consumerism in our society and how its tentacles have infiltrated family life. Consumerism has slowly crept in and taken hold of the holiday season, especially for kids.
The vehicle for this takeover by such a materialistic mindset is none other than the media. How does the media work this magic? As children fill more and more of their free time entertained by the media, they absorb its many intriguing images, notions, and impulses. The primary message it imparts is that it feels good to buy and to own. Auxiliary messages include what looks cool and fun, what gifts one might especially want, and how to plead for these gifts from parents. Unwittingly, we have planted a holiday beast in our own living rooms and bedrooms that sends media messages to our kids and instructs them in what they should most desire.
How can parents counter this consumer appetite growing in our kids? I suggest beginning by recalling the original themes of the holiday season: giving, hope, and childhood itself. With these themes in mind, I would offer parents four recommendations.
First, parents would do well to set a dollar limit on the cost of their children’s holiday gifts. This approach will both quell parents’ anxiety about price tags and clarify for the kids that limits are not simply necessary but good for them developmentally.
Second, parents can either limit the amount of time kids spend alone with the media or spend some time watching holiday fare along with their children. Many of the TV shows may be innocuous enough—mirthful, warm, and humorous—but parents will be intrigued, if not shocked, to see how deftly, indeed artfully, segments of the shows are interspersed with commercials that twaddle on about what the kids want for Christmas. Where else would these kids be getting their consumer-driven ideas?
Third, families should create a tradition of children giving presents too—to parents, siblings, and best friends. In so doing, parents will teach their kids the central premise of the holidays: giving rather than simply receiving.
Finally, children should be encouraged to write letters to extended family members like grandparents or cherished aunts, uncles, or cousins as another holiday ritual. In this way, children will discover that their expression of love and appreciation to significant others is in fact the greatest gift of all, whether it be to give, to receive, or both.
Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.