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Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Tis the season to be... a little more thoughtful about Christmas

Last month my blog feed was full of posts about Thanksgiving, which is one American festival I wholeheartedly applaud (and wish we had here in Australia).  We spend far too little time being grateful for what we have in our highly privileged countries, and far too much time whinging about what else we wish we had. The World Vision ad telling about a small girl who has to walk alone for 8 hours a day to get water for her family, each time risking death at the hands of wild animals and rape at the hands of unscrupulous passers-by, says everything we need to know. (Yes, World Vision put in a water supply for her community, but that's just one community of many.)

This week, of course, my feed is flooded with posts about Christmas, and I feel like hiding under a rock.

Ah, Christmas. It starts out purporting to be a season of fun, generosity and celebration, and so often ends up as a nightmare of alcohol-fuelled family feuding over lunch, while tearful, overstimulated kids beg for just one more present or whine about what they didn't get.

This is followed by mind-numbing parental panic when the credit card bill arrives.

'Tis the season of greed and excess.  'Tis the season to join the red and green dots the same way we've always done it, and then repent at leisure- the way we always do it.

Is Christmas good for our kids? Have you ever asked yourself that? Is how YOU do Christmas good for your kids? 

I rethought Christmas a long time ago, because I had to. I could no longer afford Christmas. I couldn't afford to buy everyone in my circle something they actually wanted or needed, and as a committed greenie I refused point-blank to buy them some cheap and worthless piece of junk as a token gesture. We need LESS stuff, not more. We don't need to fill our already overcrowded shelves with things we don't want or need, and we certainly don't need to add to landfill.

You're wondering how my son coped with that, aren't you?  And my answer is, remarkably well. Because I'd always been very honest with him, it was easy to be authentic and share the fact that I couldn't afford the extravagance any more. I barely had the money to buy what we needed, let alone stretching it to what he wanted. 

Yes, sure, he was disappointed at first; even grumpy.  But when he got over that, he was concerned for me- a little worried that I was worried about money. He was a highly empathetic little fellow, and I swear that came about because I nearly always let him know what I was feeling when I was sad or angry about something.  Being authentic with your child is such a good idea, and it bears fruit when things get tough.

It also helped that I'd never done the whole Santa-down-the-chimney thing with him, because I saw it as a commercial honeytrap. The legend of St Nicholas has been warped out of all proportion by retailers; good grief, Santa even dresses like a bottle of Coke.  He sits there in every large shopping mall, encouraging the desire for STUFF in small children.  Santa is here, so we can ask for the moon. Oh look! There's the moon, right over there in front of K Mart! What a coincidence!

It's a way of increasing the pressure on parents to BUY.  You can't seriously think they pay good money for a Santa actor, a photographer and all those decorations out of festive cheer... can you?  It's a choreographed method of removing more money from parents' wallets.  I hate being pushed around emotionally.

Even when my son was small and the presents flowed, he knew they never came from Santa, though sometimes I'd write 'from Santa' on the wrapping as a sort of in-joke.  It's what my parents had always done with me; I wasn't brought up as a believer, either.  In fact, my son was gobsmacked to realise that some children actually thought Santa was real.

"Why do some parents lie to their kids about Santa?" he asked me, when he was about 5 or 6.  And then thanked me for not lying to him.

I couldn't answer his question about why. I don't get it either.  I'm not into telling kids that Santa, the Easter Bunny, fairies, unicorns or any other fictional creatures are real, because I don't think it's respectful to deceive them.  That, to me, is taking advantage of their innocence so you can look down on them and go 'Oh, aren't they cute!'. 

Either that, or it's letting our own sentimentality getting the better of us.  It's fine if you want to go all gooey about Christmas, but are you actually considering how your insistence that a fairy tale is true might affect your children?  How do you think they feel later on, when they realise they were duped by you? 

I think it's a breach of trust. Small things like that matter to children.  Small things need to be thought about, not just done because that's the way it was done to you, and that's the way other people do it.

(By the way, that doesn't mean I think you should squash them or scorn them when they decide that something magical is real to them. Let them believe what they want to- they'll work it out for themselves when they're ready. Be interested and non-committal.  Ask questions instead of making statements.  Draw parallels with the stories you read to them.)

There's plenty of opportunity for children to find a certain sort of magic in the natural world, and in books, and in the stretches of their own wonderful and unspoiled minds, without us putting fanciful ideas into their heads as 'truth'. By all means, kids should know about Santa as a feature of our culture, but to present him as real because you know they're young enough to be fooled is- well, it's patronising.

When I started working in Early Childhood education as a casual, I was thrown back into the whole lunacy of Christmas with a bang. I was amazed at the way greed was tacitly encouraged. At circle time, each child would be asked what they wanted for Christmas- so that even children who hadn't considered that question were pushed into a statement of self-interest. The Santa fallacy was perpetuated 100%. Children were given toy catalogues so they could cut out the gifts they wanted, then paste them on a page (a whole page!) to make a Christmas wish list. And it was as though the whole centre had become a factory dedicated to the propagation of red and green crafts; I don't think I saw paint or craft supplies of another colour for three weeks.

Christmas frenzy.  I hated it.  The sense of false entitlement to stuff was nurtured; the reality of a world where some of our families faced Christmas with a sense of dread due to their family circumstances was ignored. Nobody sang Christmas carols, and nobody talked about, say, why our Christmas tree had a star on top, because of the fear that this would be culturally offensive to non-Christians (and you can read my views on that here- no, I am not particularly religious, but fair go, in historical terms this is our white man's culture!). Removing the 'reason for the season' gave the whole month a lack of balance- and a lack of balance isn't good for children.  I won't be doing Christmas like that ever again. Not in my room, thank you.

And my house keeps its balance at Christmas now, and has done since I stopped being relatively wealthy.  When the coffers ran dry, the season of greed became just a bit of a family reunion for us. The food's good, because in my house the food is always good; it's one of my priorities. But the giving of pointless crap and excessive numbers of expensive gifts stopped. I've even stopped inviting anyone I really don't like to my house out of duty, because life is too short to burden yourself with drunken Aunt Mary and her nastiness; Aunt Mary needs to get a grip. 

And guess what? The sky hasn't fallen, Henny Penny.  It's all good.

It makes for some interesting social moments, though.  Every time I go to the supermarket in December, the checkout chick asks me if I'm 'organised for Christmas'- no doubt the rote enquiry as ordered by management, so I'll remember something else I can buy from Woolies before I go. I tell them I don't do Christmas, just to see the look on their faces.  It's usually somewhere between naked envy and the look you'd give someone who'd just turned into a little green alien before your eyes. They just assume that everyone will be as wrapped up in the madness as they are.

No, this Christmas at my house will involve my direct family- or those who can get here without breaking the bank- maybe a close friend or two, no gifts, good food, and gratitude for and enjoyment of where I live.  And when I'm next running a daycare room at Christmas time, they're going to have honesty and balance- not a red-and-green greedfest.  Oh, I won't be disillusioning any children whose parents want them to believe in the man in the big red Coke bottle- um, I mean 'suit'. But I won't be feeding that idea, either.

So, are you wrapped up in madness for Christmas? Has the greed and need factor been revved up in your kids, or are you being realistic? Are you lining up for a financial crisis in February? Will your home be full of people you can't stand, who'll model the finer points of having a drunken slanging match in front of your children?

I hope not.

But if so- is it time for a re-think? 


  1. But you DO "do Christmas", don't you, by celebrating with a family reunion? Just not the consumer bacchanalia the marketing folks would have us engage in. I thought that was a particularly American thing; sad to hear it's reached Australia too. Though American culture is pretty much world culture now.

    Growing up we always had stockings and presents ...but what I really remember is the tree and the cousins and the feast my mother prepared. And how embarrassed I was one year when, as a broke art student, I put three expensive things on my annual Christmas list expecting to get one of them as my "big" gift, and unwrapped all three. I still feel bad about it. It was the last Christmas list I ever made.

    Which isn't really a good thing. My parents were adamant that gifts needed to be both somewhat practical and desired(I got several winter coats over the years as combination Christmas/birthday gifts, much nicer than I could afford myself), and the list was a way of ensuring that. My parents allowed us to dream, but also expected us to consider prices, and made it very clear that we were not to expect everything -- a very wise way to demonstrate that you can't always get everything you want.

    I don't remember how old I was when I figured out Santa, but I remember my mother's slightly tearful explanation that Santa Claus was a symbol of her and my dad's love for us. We held a family meeting, decided that we wanted that symbol to endure, and began a new tradition of stuffing stockings (with a creatively small dollar limit) for each other. To this day, in my house, and my siblings houses, if you are there on Christmas morning, a stocking is stuffed for you, and you know you are loved. That's powerful, it's magical, and it's plenty real.

  2. Hah, Frances, you're so good at keeping me honest! Bless you!

    Yes, I guess you could say I 'do Christmas' to the extent that USUALLY I see at least part of my family, and I do feed them (though not to excess, because I can't afford excess)... but in fact I've spent several Christmasses with no family at all. That's my choice in part and necessity in part (if you can't afford the petrol and you live in a remote area, people really have to come to you).

    There was one Christmas that was particularly quietly spent with my partner and best friend, because between us we'd lost three parents that year and just couldn't bear it; there were another two that I spent just with my partner because it had been a tough year for us both and we weren't up for the hoo-haa. My son's a struggling student, so mostly he can't get here. And I haven't had a Christmas tree for years and years.

    I guess it depends on the sort of family you have. Your traditions sound delightful- those are the sort of things I'd do if I did anything. But often it's just another day of peace in my beautiful home.

  3. Ah, peace. So valuable. I think there are many ways of marking holidays; spending a day quietly with friends or family or just yourself is a terrific one. That's how I feel about New Year's, which here is an excuse for a wild party. Hate that. Starting the year hungover just doesn't seem particularly auspicious. So we make a nice meal for our little family (which is only excessive if you don't count how far I stretch leftovers) and watch the year's best animated movie on DVD.

    I hope my first response wasn't offensive; I wasn't meaning to argue with you, because though I mark the season in more typical fashion, I too have never bothered with Christmas "madness". It bothers me that many people seem to feel that if we are not participating in the celebration the way our mass culture seems to that we are not participating at all. When in fact the madness is created by marketers; it's impossible to live up to, and honestly, I personally know nobody who really tries. Anyway, even if all you do is wish a friend a Merry Christmas with a true generosity of spirit, you are participating.

  4. I loathe the New Year madness too! And absolutely no offence taken... all input is good input.

    Sadly I know quite a few people who do try to live up to the Christmas hype, and it wearies me- I just can't do that any more. Perhaps when I challenge the checkout chicks with 'I don't do Christmas', it's just my way of- well, not RESTORING the balance, because the Christmas juggernaut is way too big for me to balance, but at least pointing out to them that there IS another way to be at this time of year.

  5. Which is a good thing to point out!

    I heard a story on the radio today, meant, I think, to tug at my heartstrings, but it just made me angry. A single mom had just lost her job and been forced to tell her children "they weren't having Christmas this year" because she had no money. Cue the syrupy strings.

    Bah and humbug. I can sympathize with this woman's struggle, but it does not cost money to set the table nicely and to sing Christmas carols, walk around the neighborhood to look at the lights, give each other Christmas hugs, even make gifts of storytime with books from the library. This family might not be exchanging wrapped presents, but they can still "have Christmas".

    My grandmother used to say she was celebrating a quiet Christmas. I like that.

  6. Oh dear, that is unnecessarily manipulative and inconsiderate of the children's feelings. Yes, it's awful that she lost her job, but this reaction just highlights the dangers of accepting the consumer-driven model of an ideal Christmas. If you can't see Christmas as anything but rabid consumerism (regardless of whether you're justifying this using tradition and family values), you're really setting yourself up for a fall.


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