When I was a little girl, Christmas was an overwhelming but distant entity. It was everywhere–stores were decorated (though that usually happened AFTER Thanksgiving), Christmas specials entertained on TV, homes lit up in festive glory. I loved all of these things, even though it felt like Christmas was a huge party that I wasn’t invited to. Instead, I enjoyed my family’s traditions of baking sugar cookies and jelly donuts, eating latkes, playing dreidel, and lighting the menorah. We did not receive 8 small gifts for Chanukah. Instead, we got one. Which might have been given on the first night or anytime during the subsequent 8 days. While the present was an exciting part of the holiday, there was no grand moment of gift gorging that seems to occur on Christmas morning. I am grateful for the simplicity of my experience.

The greed and commercialism of the holiday season is sickening. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I realize that the true spirit of the Christmas is not material desire. I am aware that Christians celebrate the birth and message of Jesus Christ, and I understand that countless beautiful acts of kindness that occur this time of year. But there is no denying that many people have grown distant from these aspects of the holiday. This post is critical of the commercialism, not the holiday itself. While (contrary to popular belief) not everyone in the USA is Christian, we are all exposed to it, so I am here to share my unique perspective. Please know that I do so with love and respect.

We live in a society where we are constantly barraged from late October through December with pressure to spend money. There is no escape. And we have to succumb, because social expectation requires gift giving. Otherwise, people are disappointed, feel unloved, or we appear to be cheap misers. I’ve tried giving hand-made gifts to combat the commercialism. I’m sure you can guess how well that goes over with the kiddos–hand sewn gloves vs. a brand new video game, there is no contest in kids’ minds as to which they prefer.

All too often the kids I encounter talk about Christmas in terms of what they hope to get, not what they intend to give. I find this disheartening and disturbing. I can’t help but wonder about the value of a magical man who brings gifts only to “nice” children, when in reality those who are left out are the poor kids. What must that feel like? To receive the message that being poor is the same as being naughty, and you can behave like a selfish, spoiled brat and still get everything you want? No offense to all you Santa lovers, but that’s messed up. I also find it terribly strange to convince young children to believe in a  character of benevolence and generosity who does not actually exist. I can’t imagine the moment when they realize it was all a lie. Ouch. I suppose at that moment Christmas becomes more about the presents than the magic,  which seems merely to pave the way for a greedy, materialistic mindset.

And, of course, kids make comparisons. Little Johnny may have been perfectly happy with his coloring book until he found out that his friend Timmy got an Xbox. Loving parents who want their kids to be happy are easily sucked into the spending vortex. When comparisons are made, they want their kid to come out feeling  pleased and fortunate. Marketing teams know this, and they prey on our emotions and insecurities. As long as we buy into the notion that gifts=love, we fall victim to commercial manipulation. Meanwhile, our kids develop a warped sense of value, appreciation, and expectation.

Does this mean I think we shouldn’t give gifts at the holidays? Does it mean I think we should do away with tales of Santa? Of course not. However, I think there are ways to approach these traditions that will enhance our children’s capacity for generosity and gratitude. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When having kids make their Christmas lists–you know, the one that spells out what they WANT– have them make another list that names what they are prepared to GIVE. The second list shouldn’t be a bunch of items to purchase, but rather a bunch of acts of kindness they can do.
  • Make it a point to have the kids actually DO some of those acts of kindness. Make a big fuss about how fun it is and how good it feels.
  • When talking about Santa, emphasize his generosity and his love for children over what gifts he gives. It’s not what Santa brings them that is the gift, it is the fact that Santa gives at all that truly matters. Explain that Santa aims to spread joy; that he is the opposite of greed and selfishness and encourage them to think about how they can be like Santa by giving to and loving others. If they visit Santa, encourage them to tell him about their acts of kindness, not just their desires.
  • Do service. Show your kids how fortunate they are by encouraging them to help those in need. “Adopt” a family and buy them gifts. Donate to local toy drives or food pantries. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Do something to give kids perspective.
  • Similarly, share global news in a developmentally appropriate way. While American children are whining about not having cell phones, kids in Aleppo are watching family members die. A harsh but true fact. I don’t recommend being a downer or traumatizing kids with disturbing facts, but let them know basic information about what is happening RIGHT NOW, and encourage them to recognize their many blessings each and every day.
  • Make gifts with and for your kids (help them realize how special these are and how much time, love and energy goes into them).
  • Make kids say THANK YOU. They should say it when the gift is given, and send a note when it’s delivered from a distance. It doesn’t matter if they liked the gift or not, gratitude must be expressed regardless. They should learn to appreciate the gesture, not only the thing itself.
  • Turn off the TV/digital devices and spend time with your kids. Bake cookies, decorate a gingerbread house, play dreidel, go ice skating, make a snowman, do a puzzle… whatever! The gift of your time and attention is by far the best gift of all.

Do you have other suggestions for combating commercialism during the holidays? If so, please share them with us by commenting on this post. May you all have peaceful, pleasant holidays filled with kindness, comfort, and joy!

With Love & Compassion,

Adina Arden Cooper

I'm a healer, a guide, a supportive companion. A storyteller, an artist, an ally and an advocate. I help individuals thrive and communities come together through counseling, coaching, and community building. I believe that shared humanity is a powerful strength and that our stories connect us in beautiful and sacred ways. As I stumble, skip, or soar my way through this life, I invite you to join me on the journey. Likewise, I'm honored to travel with you. In witnessing one another, we find meaning.