Alice Slaikeu Lawhead
Our culture says that Christmas is for kids. We hold firm to the idea that all the foods, gifts, decorations, songs and festivity are aimed at pleasing our children.
In support of the myth, we have a classic picture of the new father who gives his 9-month-old son an expensive Lionel train set for Christmas, claiming all along that he does it for the little guy, comically denying the fact that his son is only an excuse to indulge in his fantasy of being engineer for the finest locomotive in the land.
This myth that Christmas is for kids also explains why I bake dozens of fancy sugar cookies each year, elaborately decorate them, claim that they are the kids’ favorites, and then eat most of them myself. Well, they’d be too sweet for the children anyway, don’t you see? Tooth decay, spoiled appetites, hyperactivity . . . and my little boys aren’t really old enough to appreciate all the work that’s gone into them. Besides, they’d just as soon have a frosted graham cracker. So I eat nearly every one of them myself (I share a few with my friends) late in the evening, when the day’s work is done, sitting in front of the lit Christmas tree, after the little rascals have been tucked snugly in their beds.
All this is fairly harmless. Our belief that Christmas is for kids allows us to let go of our adult inhibitions. We can now dress up like Santa Claus, put that chipped plaster nativity scene on the mantel one more year, hang the old stockings, play “The Little Drummer Boy” eight times a day for two weeks, all for the children, of course.
Buying into the myth becomes dangerous, however, when we saddle children with an unfair burden that requires them to rise to our occasion. Since we’re doing it all for them, why aren’t they more cooperative, more appreciative, more delighted? We sacrifice and plan and struggle so they can have the best possible Christmas. Why don’t they see that? Why don’t they want to go to Aunt Myrt’s for a holiday family reunion? What would possess a child to eat all the heads, and the heads only, off 26 frosted gingerbread men? Why won’t Jenny play with the embroidered beanbags I made her? Why is Elizabeth crying, for goodness sake?
We perpetuate the myth that Christmas is for kids in a hundred ways, and this only increases our disgust and dismay when they fail to exhibit proper respect and appreciation for everything we’ve done for them.
While parents, grandparents and other doters are feeling very unhappy, many of a child’s real needs are also being ignored. By holding to the belief that Christmas is for kids, we are likely to miss what it is that kids really do want from Christmas.
What is their Christmas fantasy? Most people assume the answer is toys, toys, toys. This seems obvious. As soon as holiday television campaigns commence in mid-November, parents are hounded with subtle hints, direct requests and shameful begging: “I want a Robotank; I want a Baby-Wets-A-Lot; I love that ski outfit they have at Magee’s; I could really get around this town if I had an 18-speed bike.” The “Christmas = Toys” equation seems so clearly balanced that one hardly questions it.
This equation is false, however. Here is the truth: At Christmastime, children want the same thing they want the rest of the year. They want to be loved; they want security; they want acceptance; they want to believe that they are wanted and that they belong.
Before we go any further, it is necessary to acknowledge the part that the various media play in provoking the “gimme” attitude children develop during the month of December. Many kids, especially younger ones, are painfully vulnerable to television. A new toy has but to flicker into view on the screen, and it becomes their heart’s desire. They must have it, even if they don’t know what it is. And if they suspect they might not get it, they are crushed. They feel woefully forsaken if they cannot have the toys they see on TV: the toys that make the kids in the commercials happy, the toys that make those same kids have lots of nice friends to play with, the toys that give those commercial kids a big new house to live in and a mother who brings cookies and Kool-Aid while they’re playing with their My Little Pony dolls.
Isn’t this readily apparent? I recognize in myself a similar response to advertising. I hesitate to mention it, but when I see young, upwardly mobile couples on TV sharing a cup of coffee, I almost believe that if I go out and and buy that particular brand, then caring, interesting, attractive friends, whom I have somehow known for years, will just materialize. We’ll sit on the bearskin rug in front of our natural stone fireplace, pour piping hot Java into earthenware mugs, and laugh and tell stories as the cheerful, flickering firelight beams from our beautiful faces. . . .
How much more susceptible is the 6-year-old? A child whose parents are busy much of the time with their various responsibilities, a child whose red hair and freckles invite ridicule on the playground, a child who has trouble in school because he’s dyslexic, a child who wishes he had a big brother instead of a colicky baby sister who has effectively upstaged him in the family circus? Of course he wants a Gobot! Naturally he’d like to have coordinated Winnie the Pooh clothes from Sears! Who wouldn’t like to eat Frankenberry cereal for breakfast every morning? Obviously that’s where happiness is. The commercial kids demonstrating all these products don’t have the same problems and anxieties he does. What else can he conclude?
Many parents, when confronted with their child’s desire for the latest Christmas toys, feel obligated to indulge. “It’s what he really wants and after all, Christmas is for kids.”
So the financially-struggling parents agree not to give gifts to each other this year so that Jason can have a Snake Mountain, complete with 12 action figures in their own handy carrying case. They go to five different stores before they finally find one that hasn’t sold out of this popular toy, happy to sacrifice for something that is “important” to their child. And on Christmas morning excited little Jason opens up several packages, plays with the set for 20 minutes or so, then leaves the whole mess on the living room floor. He goes upstairs to his room and takes a nap, at 9:30 in the morning.
No, children don’t want toys for Christmas. As I said before, they crave the same things they have sought, but maybe haven’t received enough of, the rest of the year. When other members of the family, especially adults, are scurrying around baking bread, cleaning house, decorating the tree, entertaining friends and rushing to church, then children realize that the way to feel a part of things, the way to belong, is to plug into the toys and gifts aspect of the whole thing and milk it for all it’s worth. Really, what else can a kid do?
While we strive for sparkling no-wax shines, believing that Calgon Bouquet has the power to take us away from it all, our children are pinning their hopes on Mattel.
There was a time when children did not watch seven hours of television a day. They didn’t wander the expansive toy department of discount stores, educating themselves on the absolute latest fun. They were totally ignorant about home computers, video games and electronic amusements. They weren’t wise to the fact that if you wrote a letter to Santa Claus and asked Dad to mail it, you would get almost everything on your want list. As a matter of fact, Santa Claus was unheard of; theirs was a story about Saint Nicholas, but he was quite different from our modern-day jolly old elf whose life is built around rewarding little girls and boys for a year’s good behavior with a bagful of toys.
In that not-so-long-ago time, children were an integral part of the family celebration. Little girls helped their mother bake sweet breads and cakes; the whole family marched into the woods to pick out a suitable tree to be cut and placed in the home; young boys chopped wood with their fathers and did other chores with them, giving extra portions to the animals on Christmas Eve. And when Christmas Day came, they were given a handmade doll or a book of adventure stories.
A bit romantic? Well, yes, it is. We tend to paint our own generation in the worst possible light, forgetting that each era has had its problems and disappointments. But it would be good to remember that toys and gifts have not always been the focus of the Christmas celebration. And if you value simple pleasures more than Madison Avenue, then you can be assured that there are ways of turning Christmas around, or at least shifting it a little, to a place where your own values are more fairly represented, and where merchandising has less of a say in how you celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s birth and the salvation of mankind.
Children cannot be bought off or put off. It takes time, patience and determination to get things straight with your children so that you and they are celebrating Christmas together in a spirit of love and trust. Parents must not be bullied by their children; children should not be ignored by parents.
How can you begin? Start by revising (or creating) Christmas traditions that keep your child’s real needs in mind. Despite the current emphasis on buying, getting, rushing and doing, you can reinforce being in your home this year: being loved, being secure, being accepted and, most important, being sensitive to the wonder of the birth of Christ.
In sending these new Christmas messages to children, you might entertain the following suggestions. Consider incorporating one or more into this year’s celebration.Substitute seasonal reading for the regular fare at bedtime or storytime. Longer books can be read one chapter a night throughout the holidays. Tell your children stories about your own past Christmases. The stories can relate your disappointments as well as your joys. You might, for example, recount a time when you wanted a particular toy very badly for Christmas and didn’t get it. Discuss with your children how you felt, how you reacted, etc. Such a discussion might help them deal with disappointments that they’re facing this year. This is also a good time to describe family customs, detailing how they came to be a part of the present-day celebration. The flurry of Christmas activity is often upsetting to children. Try, as much as possible, to keep some routine throughout the season so the child isn’t totally befuddled. Routine is important in the same way tradition is: it’s a landmark, something to steer by. Maintaining the same order of events regarding bedtime, household responsibilities and behavior standards is important to a child, even if the routine isn’t hardily endorsed per se. You might think it would be a nice “treat” to let your child off the hook when it comes to practicing the piano or taking the Wednesday night bath because it is, after all, Christmas. But this could be upsetting to your child, who loses an important contact point in his life and wonders now if anything goes. Rules concerning “what happens when” make Christmas celebrations, which are very much out of the ordinary, seem more familiar, more predictable and less frantic, for children as well as adults. Even young children can be taught the joy of giving during Christmas. Here’s a good tradition: On Christmas Eve, let your child pick a toy from his/her collection, explaining that it will be placed under the Christmas tree (or beside the fireplace) and then given in turn to some other child who would like it. You might be surprised at the toy your child chooses. Toddlers and youngsters who have no financial resources of their own (and consequently limited opportunities to share) often will pick their very favorite doll or truck to give away. Even the smallest gesture helps the child understand that whenever he in turn receives, it is because someone else gave. (Remember it is your responsibility to take the gift-toy to a needy child.) There’s no substitute for time spent with children. The concept of “quality time” has some merit, but it should be remembered that there has to be a certain quantity of time available for children as well. Children are often neglected and left to themselves when holiday preparation and celebration is in full force. Remember your children. Remember to spend time with them. “Some assembly required” toys should be assembled prior to opening. Kids hate to wait for Dad to put a thing together when they’re anxious to play. Wrap children’s gifts with a thought as to how they will be unwrapped. A glued or stapled-shut corrugated cardboard box, wrapping paper applied with yards of cellophane tape and tied up with a stout piece of twine or ribbon, shrink-wrap packaging and impenetrable plastic bags all have the power to put an excited little child into tears of frustration. Don’t let the container ruin the fun of the gift. Remove problematic manufacturer’s packaging and re-wrap with the child in mind. Or add a bow and don’t wrap it at all.
Allow kids to open gifts at their own pace. Some presents are real showstoppers, and should be allowed to do just that. Several years ago my niece got a nice little set of doll dishes from her mother, my nephew conveniently got a four-pack of Play-Doh, and they decided to halt the entire gift-opening ceremony by having a tea party right then and there on the coffee table. With several gifts yet to go, they merrily created petit fours and enjoyed imaginary hot chocolate. It’s pointless to get impatient and hurry a child along to his next gift, just because you’re anxious to see the expression on his face when he opens it or you’re anxious to cut the coffee cake. Let the enjoyment last and last. This is Christmas. You’ve waited all year for it. Don’t be in such a hurry. Christmas can become a rite of passage when you give a gift of freedom and, consequently, responsibility to your child. Children and teenagers will appreciate: an extended curfew, no more bedtime, (Accompany this gift with a reliable alarm clock that the child can use to get himself up in the morning.) “a set of keys to the family car, and resultant privileges to use it.
a handful of “You can count on me” phone call coupons. Each coupon entitles your teenager to a no-questions-asked ride home when he or she gets in a tough situation (at a party where friends have been drinking, when your daughter is ditching a bad date, who knows?) Tape a couple of dimes to each coupon for phone money. Are you ready to give this gift? If you do, you must be absolutely sure that you are willing to respect your child’s right to tell you nothing.
Freedom gifts are sometimes very difficult to give, and equally hard to receive. When they are given formally, though, at Christmas, they tend to be respected and used wisely. Plan to spend some time in the days after Christmas writing thank-you notes with your child. A parent can help a child realize at an early age that the important and pleasurable part of receiving gifts is to acknowledge them. Little ones can dictate thank-yous, older children can write their own notes with help, and teenagers can take full responsibility for procuring notepaper, stamps, and mailing the notes themselves. If there has been any disappointment on the child’s part about what he didn’t get, a nice-sized pile of thank-yous should help him refocus on what he did receive. Set a good example by writing your own thank-yous promptly, including one to your own child for all the nice things he said, did and gave. Fred Rogers (television’s “Mister Rogers”) suggests that when a child has a long list of toys he or she wants for Christmas, the parent might consider giving the child the #1 wish from the list (if feasible) to demonstrate that he is sensitive to what the child wants, and then feel free to disregard items #2 through #37 in favor of what the parent wants the child to have. This might be a good way to recognize the youngster’s wants, yet resist the dictates of a demanding kid.
If your child wants a toy that you absolutely cannot or will not give, offer something by way of an explanation well before gift-opening time, so that the child doesn’t build up expectations that cannot possibly be realized. It’s better to say, right from the start, “No, Billy, I’m absolutely not going to give you a condominium in Malibu for Christmas” than to make him sift eagerly through his presents for the deed on Christmas morning. Children will enjoy having a birthday party for Jesus during the Christmas season. By celebrating the nativity in this familiar way, little children (and older ones too) will be able to grasp the true meaning of Christmas.
The party can be given any time during the season. Some parents find that having it after December 25 helps to ease the letdown after the holidays, gives the party a relaxed time in which to happen, and fills the gap between Christmas and New Year’s when children are out of school and need something to do. Here are some further ideas:
1. Encourage children to take an active part in planning the party and in making it happen. Involve them in making and sending invitations, decorating the home, choosing games and activities and preparing food. One of the chief goals of such a party is to give children a place where they can plug into the Christmas celebration. Their involvement is very important.
2. Birthday parties usually include presents. Each guest may be asked to bring a gift to the party that can be used for some good purpose, cookies for the elderly in a neighborhood nursing home, money that will be donated to charity, toys for needy children. Part of the festivities could include delivering the gifts to their recipients. Christ said that whatever we do for others has been done for Him. A gift to some worthwhile cause or brother in need will be understood by the children as a gift to Jesus. This is a wonderful concept to grasp early in life.
3. Here are some suggestions for party activities: An adult or older child can read the Christmas story to the group. Each guest could be asked to draw the name of a nativity character from a hat, then the entire group acts out the Christmas story. Use simple props such as a yardstick (shepherd’s staff), paper hats (Wise Men’s crowns), cloth headdress (Mary and Joseph), or placards to identify the players. Have a baby doll that can be used for the Christchild. The actors can pantomime the appropriate actions while someone reads the Christmas story, or can work from a prepared script. If the whole thing gets a little crazy, as it is bound to do, enjoy the fun, reflecting on how strange the first Christmas must have seemed. Young children will enjoy hearing stories of their own births, too, contrasting them with Christ’s experience. The local public library probably has many volumes of simple Christmas plays that can be enacted at your party. Pin-the-Tail-on-Mary’s-Donkey would be an appropriate game! Birthday party goodies might reflect the culture that Christ was born into. Serve foods that Jesus would have eaten (or reasonable facsimiles): raisins, homemade bread, crackers, dates, nuts, olives, any kind of fruit.
Keep the party as simple as it needs to be so that the children remember its purpose to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Many children look forward to the party as a yearly event of great importance, the focus of their holiday festivities.
Christmas is for kids? Sure it is. It’s also for parents, the elderly, the poor and the alone. It is for Christ, in appreciation of His wonderful gift. A child who finds his place in Christmas along with his family, friends and community will be happier than the one who is mistakenly led to believe that he is the star of the show on December 25.
The above article, “Christmas is for Kids” is written by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead. The article was excerpted from a pamphlet published by Focus on the Family in 1985.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.