Christmas: Trying to get it right
Families experiment with simplifying without sacrificing tradition or generosity.
When snow started to fall in Emma Johansen-Hewitt's Vermont town last month, the toddler began talking breathlessly about Christmas, Santa, and most of all, toys. That was all her mother needed to hear.Skip to next paragraph
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"Emma jabbered about everything but what Christmas is really about," groans Christine Johansen-Hewitt. She and her husband, Paul, came up with a plan for teaching their 2-1/2 year old about the spirit of giving: make most of their gifts and donate the money usually spent at the mall to their church for social-outreach programs. "Mattel won't be making much off us this year!" says Christine.
With a sigh, she explains: "I don't want Christmas to be any less magical for Emma than it was for me. I just want the true meaning of the holiday to be understood and given greater importance."
While most families aren't ready to completely forsake shopping, a growing number of American families are experimenting with ways to keep the meaning of Christmas from being buried under a pile of gifts.
Many seek to simplify the holiday but don't want to sacrifice traditions or their children's joy. They wrestle with how to curb the materialistic aspects without limiting their generosity.
Religious and financial reasons often drive these decisions, but also a desire to slow down and put the brakes on a season that can quickly become a whirlwind of shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, and entertaining.
"Christmas is a constant struggle between the spiritual and the holy and the materialistic push to max out the credit cards," says Glaston Ford, the father of three young children in Austin, Texas. He says he has thought long and hard about his family's approach.
His extended family has adopted a gift-exchange system, with each person giving to one other family member instead of to everyone. This approach is becoming more common with large extended families. It relieves some of the pressure of having to buy many gifts, and allows the giver to focus thoughtfully on one individual.
But his three children, ages 8, 6, and 2, would never go for that, he says. "Not because they are spoiled brats, but, hey, kids like toys."
And, hey, parents like to give them toys, too, he says. "As parents, we get joy out of watching them have joy. Also, it feels good to give my wife something that is meaningful and personal."
But he adds: "I don't want to be paying for Christmas in February. I don't want to buy stuff just to keep up with the Joneses. And I don't want the toys and gifts to displace the spiritual message. I want to give from the heart."
Others, like the Niedner family of Valparaiso, Ind., are experimenting with alternatives to the Dec. 25 gift-opening binge. They are exchanging small gifts on each of the Sundays of Advent. (Two down, two to go.) This way, his children, Micah (age 7) and Rebekah (age 9) don't feel "gypped" when on Christmas Day they just open gifts from Grandma and then head to a nursing home to sing carols with another family.
"We've done this ever since our children were old enough to learn the songs, and they love it," says Fred Niedner, a theology professor at Valparaiso University. He admits, however, it sometimes takes a little coaxing.
Gary Zavoral and his wife tried a few alternatives to the Christmas morning gift-opening binge (presents on each Sunday of Advent and good deeds recognized daily), but after some grumbling from the kids, decided they just needed to approach the holiday more thoughtfully.
The Citrus Heights, Calif., couple doesn't see it as giving up on the "true meaning" of Christmas. "I guess it's justifying the commercial way, but we believe that gift-giving at Christmas is metaphoric of the gifts given by the wise men to the Christ child," says Mr. Zavoral, father of five children between the ages of 2 and16.
And now that the economy has rebounded from its summertime lows, many families are feeling downright flush.
No cutting back on toys
That's the mood felt by David Hesel, owner with his wife, Beverly, of the Concord Toy Shop in Concord, Mass. "We're certainly not witnessing a movement to simplify," he says. "Our sales are already 60 to 65 percent higher than last year!"
While the National Retail Federation doesn't expect such a leap for every store, its recently released Holiday Mood Survey predicts a 5 to 6 percent increase this year, making it the brightest holiday season for America's shopkeepers since 1994.
But America's seasonal urge to splurge is paralleled by another feeling, tracked by the Center for the New American Dream, a nonprofit organization based in Takoma Park, Md.
Craving more joy, less stuff