Kris and I have been reading Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. This book urges readers to escape the commercialism of the holiday season, to make it a “joyful, stress-free” time for the family. In a chapter entitled “The Four Things Children Really Want for Christmas”, the authors write:

One concern voiced by most parents is that of shielding their children from the excesses of holiday commercialism. While adults can mute the TV when the ads get annoying, children are defenseless against the onslaught of ads. As early as the age of four or five, they can lose the ability to be delighted by the sights and sounds of Christmas, only to gain a two-month-long obsession with brand-name toys. Suddenly, all they seem to care about is how many presents they will be getting and how many days are left until they unwrap them.

1980 Gates Christmas - Tiff and Kris

Many parents find it a challenge to create a simple value-centered Christmas in the midst of all the commercial pressure. But the task is made much easier when parents keep in mind the four things that children really want for Christmas.

Robinson and Staeheli argue that children don’t really want clothes and toys and games. The four things they actually want are:

  1. A relaxed and loving time with the family. Children need relaxed attention. During the holidays, normal family routines are temporarily set aside for parties, shopping, and special events. It’s important to slow down and spend quality time with your kids.
  2. Realistic expectations about gifts. Kids enjoy looking forward to gifts and then having their expectations met. The key is to manage their expectations. You might try, for example, to educate your children about advertising in an attempt to mitigate its effects.
  3. An evenly paced holiday season. The modern Christmas season starts months before December 25th, when the first store displays go up, then things end with a bang on Christmas day. The authors suggest beginning the season late in the year. Get out the Christmas music on December 15th, then get the tree on the following weekend. Schedule some low-key family events during Christmas week. Stretch the season to New Years Day.
  4. Reliable family traditions. When I talk to my friends about what Christmas was like when we were Children, it’s not the gifts that we remember. We recall the things we did as a family. I remember sleeping next to the tree every Christmas eve, but never being able to catch Santa in the act. I remember seeing the cousins. I remember decorating the trailer house. Your kids will remember the traditions, not the gifts.

PB emailed me yesterday to share some similar thoughts:

We were able to keep [our children's] expectations realistic by following an old tradition — that Santa filled the stockings and only the stockings — nothing under the tree.  This limited the size and quantity of gifts, and as they were all relatively sure what they could and could not wheedle out of their parents for tree presents, their expectations were kept in check.  We bought one new outfit for each, usually a special piece of clothing that they really wanted, and spent only about $ 100/child.  However, I also shopped all year long and got some real bargains. Looking back over photographs of happy faces, I know that they did not feel cheated.
We also emphasized doing a lot of things with our church — food delivery to the elderly, singing at nursing homes, and service to others.  Our ongoing tradition is a big Christmas eve dinner with lots of friends and then the midnight service, where we all play an instrument or sing in the choir.  This is what the kids talk about — not about what they received.

Wherever you are and whatever you do this holiday season, I wish you the very best — Merry Christmas.

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