‘Tis the season for tunnel vision, when I tell the kids to look straight ahead as we try to plow through the grocery store aisles that are set up like a toy mine field, designed to derail shopping trips with whiny children demanding the latest gadgets. But you don’t have to go to the store to be bombarded with the pressure to spend. When I pick up this morning’s paper, I’ll no doubt find a stack of store ads with this week’s “Lowest Price of the Season!” deals. I may also find an article on the economy and consumer spending, meant to perpetuate the idea that blowing a wad on presents and decorations is downright patriotic and “good for the economy.” We watch holiday movies that showcase gift-giving as the pinnacle of the Christmas season. Add to that our deep desires to please others and live up to their expectations, and what you get is a cocktail of greed, pressure, unrealistic expectations and guilt. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a “happy” holiday to me. And I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Based on the number of unemployed or underemployed families in this country who are struggling to make ends meet, I think it’s time to consider what the holidays should be, not just what the store chains would like them to be. If your kids are already driving you crazy with the gimmees, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re struggling financially and feel a knot in your stomach when you look at those store ads, I want you to know that you’re not alone. This isn’t just another article on “How to save money this Christmas” from someone who likes a good bargain – we’re right there with you. To combat the commercialization of Christmas, there are several strategies I’ve found to be helpful.
Ditch the store ads
Even though I loved looking through store catalogs as a kid (back when all we had were J.C. Penney’s and Sears catalogs), I throw away the store ads and limit the amount of time my son is allowed to spend looking at his Lego catalog. To be fair, I do the same for myself. Constantly looking at ads breeds dissatisfaction and a desire for stuff. It’s so easy to focus on all the stuff you can’t buy and feel bad about that, instead of rejoicing in whatever you do have. It’s also easy to fall into the “but it’s such a good deal” trap, designed to get you to buy more than you need because of the perceived limited time offer. The truth is, deals come and go all year around. Wal-Mart almost lured me in on Black Friday for $6 men’s slippers, but I went there the following Tuesday and found $6 slippers – without the crazy crowds and long lines.
Teach kids to recognize advertising manipulation
Remember that stores pay big bucks to advertisers to manipulate us into buying their products. If you have school-age children, sit down and have a talk with them about the marketing strategies aimed at children. Point out the false claims in commercials (“Do you think that toy can really fly?”), and teach them to recognize when they’re being manipulated (“Did seeing that commercial make you want pizza? Me too!”). Instead of seeing you as the enemy who is cruelly depriving them of their wishes, or turning to a higher power (“Don’t worry Mom, I’ll just ask Santa for it.”), they’ll be apt to recognize that slick advertising is more to blame for their dissatisfaction and greed.
Consciously avoid the “from stocking to trash can” cycle
One of the best things we’ve done to educate our kids on consumerism is to have them watch the 20 minute, animated video called The Story of Stuff. In it, Annie Leonard attempts to pull back the curtain on our consumer spending/trashing cycle, and explains how we got into this cycle and what it’s doing to our planet. It forces you to think about the real cost of those cheap gadgets we want to place under the tree. I found that it kept my kids’ attention really well (even when my daughter was 5-years-old and saw it for the first time), and has been really helpful as a springboard for discussion. It also helped my kids see the reason why we “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and shifted their focus away from junky, cheap toys toward things that last (like Legos) or come from a thrift store (like the bag of 13 Lego Bionicles I found for $10). You might be surprised to find that your kids will be just as happy with a gently used toy as they would be with something brand new that costs 5 times as much. And as a bonus, there’s no annoying packaging with twisty things to wrestle with on Christmas morning!
If you have to cut out some activities or traditions because of tight finances this year, don’t let that rob you of your joy this season. Last year, we didn’t put up our outdoor decorations for the first time in 14 years because we wanted to save money on our electrical bill. This year, I didn’t even give it a thought because I realized that we didn’t miss them at all (and we live on a street where hardly anyone sees our house anyway). Sometimes we spend money on things simply because it’s what we’ve always done. So I’d encourage you to decide what you can afford to do and give this year, and let go of the guilt for not being able to do more. I’ve purposely chosen not to include ideas for inexpensive gifts to make or buy in this post. I simply want to encourage you that whatever you choose to give – even if it’s a simple plate of cookies or offer of babysitting – it’s enough. The decorations you already have are enough. Last year’s Christmas dress is enough. Choose contentment with what you have and you’re on your way to a more joyful Christmas. A great way to help kids visualize this concept is to show them the Veggie Tales video, Madame Blueberry, which shows in a comical way the downside of seeking happiness through the accumulation of stuff vs. the joy of being thankful for what you have (available through Netflix or your local library). I’ll admit, it’s so fun and clever that my husband and I enjoy watching it too.
Say yes to free family activities
When you have to say no to a lot at Christmas, it’s much easier if you have other things to which you can say yes. Chances are, there are lots of free holiday activities in your community. Between the newspaper and our free local magazine, I can always find free family fun. Last week, we attended the tree lighting ceremony in front of the state capitol building, which included free hot cider, music, candy canes from Santa, and a brand new Scholastic book for every child in the beautifully decorated capitol building. This week, we’re heading to a nearby city for free ornament making, wooden toy building, card making, cookie decorating, pictures with Santa, plus games and cocoa. Next week, we’ll take the kids to a multi-cultural holiday celebration at BSU designed to let kids experience the holiday traditions of other cultures. And it’s all free!
Of course, in addition to community activities, there are always free holiday traditions to do as a family each year, like driving around to see Christmas lights, playing games or putting together puzzles, and watching favorite movies. (I go online and request holiday movies, music, and books from the library right after Thanksgiving.) As I said in my Holiday Planning Guide, just serving hot chocolate during the hot chocolate scene in The Polar Express is enough to make a holiday tradition feel special.
Give to others
It may seem counter-intuitive to give money when you feel like you have so little, but it’s the best remedy for self-pity. When I start to feel sorry for myself, I only have to take a moment to reflect on all I have compared to some in our community who don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. Our church has an outreach ministry to the poorest schools in our city, providing a shoebox filled with gifts for each child. My kids enjoy picking out gifts for a child of their same age and gender. There are so many opportunities to give this time of year. If you have children at home, allow them to pick out a child’s wish from a giving tree for needy kids in your community – preferably for someone their age/gender – and take them shopping with you. Give them some change to put in the Salvation Army bucket or let them pick out the cans you’ll donate to a food drive. Giving reminds us that we are blessed, and spreads joy to others as we participate in someone else’s blessing.
Giving doesn’t have to cost money, however. We also encourage our kids to give of themselves through acts of kindness, which takes the focus off of material gifts. We try to “catch them in the act” of showing kindness, like opening a door for someone or sharing their candy. Each time we see them do something kind, they get to put a handful of hay in the manger (which is actually a wooden doll cradle). The more acts of kindness they do, the softer the bed will be for baby Jesus (a doll we swaddle in a blanket) on Christmas morning. This helps them visualize the concept that what Jesus wants from us for Christmas is love for Him and others. Sometimes the best gifts we can give cost only our time, like calling to say how much we appreciate someone or helping a harried mom carry packages out to her car.
Focus on the meaning of Christmas through advent activities
When I start to get hung up on what the stores would like me to see as the reason for the season (their healthy bottom line), all I have to do is open the Bible to be reminded of what’s really important. That little baby in the manger isn’t just a cute figurine on a shelf, but a real, living Savior who loved us so much that he gave up the glory of heaven to experience all the pain of humanity. He had no wealth or property, but gave all he had – his very life – for you and me, so that we may not only have eternal life, but know peace and joy in all circumstances. To have a joyful Christmas is to know Christ. And so my family lights an advent candle and reads scripture each morning after breakfast, to remind us what Christmas is all about: The world was in darkness, so God sent us Light.
If you haven’t celebrated the season of advent with your kids before, it’s never too early or too late to start. When my kids were toddlers and preschoolers, we had an age-appropriate book that we would read together. We also tied in some fun activities and crafts with the readings. There are lots of great resources available, but if you’re new to advent, Focus on the Family offers a simple explanation, schedule of scriptures, and ideas for family activities. (New for 2016 is the free downloadable advent activity guide, All the Colors of Christmas, with easy activities that will make the advent scriptures come alive for your kids.)
It’s my hope and deepest desire that my children have wonderful memories of Christmas, not because of all the presents under the tree, but because they experienced joy in both giving to others and receiving the best gift of all – Jesus Christ. May you have a joyful, blessed holiday season with no batteries required!
2013 Update: Feeling like an epic failure at giving your family the hap-happiest Christmas of all? Read my recent post: Dear Stressed Out Mom Who Feels Like A Christmas Failure. I promise, all they really want for Christmas is you!