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.
"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
Its recent survey shows that Americans are craving "more joy and less stuff." In fact, they found that only 28 percent of Americans say that Christmas leaves them feeling "joyful," and 44 percent of those surveyed feel pressure to spend more than they can afford at holiday time.
"The holidays are supposed to be a time to relax and celebrate, and a season to provide our kids with lasting memories," says Betsy Taylor, the center's executive director. "Instead, for too many families, the holidays have become just another stressful and expensive time in our already busy lives."
Her organization, which encourages people to simplify their lives, detects a sense of urgency at this time of year. "During the holiday season, we try to concentrate on the values that are most important to us. More and more Americans are ready to make changes in their lives that reflect those values."
Andy and Ana Bailie are one couple who have boldly changed their lives to better reflect their values. A few years ago, after participating in a workshop on "volunteer simplicity" (a movement that sprouted in the early '90s and has since become one of the hottest trends of the decade), they decided to sell their large house and move into a cohousing community in Atlanta. Andy is a Realtor and Ana, a former nurse, is now a stay-at-home mom.
Christmas for them is no longer a "mass act of ripping open gifts." says Andy. Instead, they limit gifts for their two daughters to three each. They buy a few gifts - but most are handmade. In fact, they are now busy crafting soap into animal shapes for their daughters, Tess (age 8) and Erin (age 5).
Erin doesn't seem to mind their three-present policy. Or that Tickle Me Elmo hasn't shown up under the family Christmas tree. "They don't watch much TV, so they're not bombarded by commercials," he says. But her big sister is "a little sad" about it.
If you are planning to change your usual holiday celebrations and rituals, but you want to avoid tussles and possibly tears, the Center for the New American Dream offers this advice: Explain to your family why you want to make a change and get their feedback. Let them know that rather than trying to take anything away from the holiday, you are attempting to add more meaning to it. Children may resist initially, but they often change their minds after taking part in the new celebration.
Between buy, buy, buy and simplify
And while it may seem that there are only two choices - to simplify or buy, buy, buy, that's not the case, says John Barclay Burns, associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"It's not wrong and certainly the intent is to give simple gifts to mark the season, reserving the greatest gift as that of love for God and other human beings," he says. "It's entirely possible to maintain the family ritual of gift-giving and also make a determined effort to focus on the holiday's inner meaning."
Gifts of time. Draw up a voucher or coupon with the name of the gift giver, the recipient, and the gift, which could range from anything to a weekend of baby-sitting, a home-cooked meal, or a car wash. For kids, it could be a one-night reprieve from the "no TV" rule or the normal bedtime.
Homemade gifts. You don't have to be an artist to make a great gift for someone. Some ideas:
A personalized basket filled with homemade muffins and jam or cookies.
A recorded interview of relatives on audio tape; ask them to talk about family history or the person you are giving to.
If the recipient lives far away, record yourself on the tape, sending them a holiday message.
Make a rope swing, painted wooden blocks, or a sandbox for a child.
Put together a book of family recipes.
Make a family calendar marked with important dates. Decorate it with family photographs.
Frame one of your best photographs. Put together a photo album, scrap book, or framed collage with pictures and mementos.
Gifts of experience.
Sign the recipient up for lessons in a sport, a language, or a musical instrument.
Offer to teach the person a skill you have developed, such as knitting, crafting furniture, or swing dancing.
Gifts to charity. Donate to a cause in the name of a family member.
Sponsor a child refugee, support a homeless shelter, or protect an acre of rain forest.
Call your local social-services agency and anonymously give food, clothing, and money to a particular family in need.
Some families make gifts to charities and then present family members with a coupon or card indicating the gift was made in their name.
Courtesy of The Center for a New American Dream, Takoma Park, Md. visit their web site at: www.newdream.org