Growing up, I remember Christmas being the most exciting time of the year. As I’ve gotten older and have become responsible for purchasing gifts for other people myself, I have come to associate the holiday with frenzy and anxiety. Thorstein Veblen was undoubtedly correct to refer to Christmas as a time of vicarious consumption. Christmas is literally referred to as “the season of giving” and if you are not giving you may be seen as cheap or a scrooge. As we have learned in our readings, one of parents’ biggest fears is having bored children. Parents also want to ensure their children do not feel left out or disappointed. With the growing emphasis on the importance of material items in the U.S., parents feel obligated to stretch their wallets at this time of year to ensure their children aren’t left out. This is because we have been socialized to believe that when you wake up on Christmas morning, there should be a towering mountain of gifts under the tree with your name on them. The main goal for many children is bragging rights. They want to be able to go to school the next day and compare who got the better presents.
“When compared to the average family budget, the Christmas gift budget makes up 1.3% of all average family spending. It is more than what the average family will spend on reading materials ($110/year) and alcoholic beverages ($435/year) put together.”
In the article “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys”, Gary Cross says, “But in the nineteenth century these celebrations of indulgence were increasingly focused on the family, in parents pampering children. The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence” (59). Essentially, families are going out of their way to buy their children’s happiness. The blame can in many instances be placed on advertising. Companies make it a point, especially at this time of year, to advertise their most expensive, sought after products while basically telling viewers how much they need it. Children see their friends playing with the best new toy and many advertisements lead them to feel like they aren’t “cool” if they don’t have that great toy too. Advertisements only solidify parents’ fear that they will disappoint their children.
In “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys” Gary Cross discusses the family indulgence of expensive and luxurious gifts during Christmas. Without a doubt, the idea of Christmas and Christmas spending today follows through with Thorstein Veblen’s thesis on “vicarious consumption.” I would even argue that Cross’s explanation on “vicarious consumption” is more so present within the twenty first century than so in the twentieth.
With the rise of technology and advancement of modern day toys, prices continue to rise for even the simplest of gifts. Most parents who can afford expensive gifts are willing to pay. As a prime example of a simple gift gone expensive I have included two pictures below, one of an early, simple twentieth century teddy bear next to one of the most popular teddy bear’s of today, the Build-A-Bear. The Build-a- Bear workshop is a for sure stop for parents during the Christmas season, with bears that talk, sing, and even dance; they are a for sure hit with the kids. But these fancy styled bears come at a price a lot higher than that of the twentieth century teddy bear. With the ability to build, clothe, insert your voice, and include an entire accessory set, the spending possibilities are endless in this “teddy bear wonderland.” Christmas is a perfect excuse for parents to spend more than a hundred dollars on a teddy bear (including accessories and stuffing). Gary Cross agues in “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys” that “trends favored the practice of purchasing toys rather than making them” (59) but with the invention of build-a-bear, parents are able to both make and buy the toy. The idea of making versus buying is now all wrapped into one and it strengthens Cross’s arguments on “parents pampering children” and spoiling them to the fullest during the Christmas season.
Considering the current economic state, people would believe that Christmas would take on a different meaning. Maybe, it wouldn’t be all about the children and what presents they get. Maybe it would be about families spending time together, a time of reflection, or maybe a day for a people to just relax a little. Unfortunately, I have noticed that this is hardly ever the case. If anything, Christmas has become a time when people (mostly parents) indulge children while attempting to snag a few deals here and there. While the recession has led to people tightening their belts here and there, the overall trend has been to continue indulging children at Christmas. A great example of this is Black Friday.
The popularity of shopping on Black Friday (the day right after Thanksgiving, usually beginning before the sun even rises) has increased so much that many retailers this past Black Friday began their sales at 12:00 AM on Friday forcing many families who have a family member working at a participating retailer to have to cut their Thanksgiving festivities short so that they could go in and get prepared for the oncoming storm.
Many families who have shopped on Black Friday know the crowds.They line up at ungodly hours. They are dense and often pushy and they are rude.
Black Friday crowd
And what is all that for? It is for the daughters and sons. So that they can have the nicest things and parents can show off the love for their children without having had paid as much. The sad truth is that more families are turning to Black Friday as way to buy their children all the things they couldn’t without having to break the bank. Which is just sad.
The underlying theme to all of this is the fact that even in times of economic woe and recession, consumers still have to get their shopping craze in for the holidays. Retailers like Kmart and Walmart have had to reformat their business trends to match the lack of spending money many consumers are facing. Veblen’s theory of vicarious consumption still powers consumers to go forth and spend, especially at Christmas time, because it has become embedded in middle-class American culture. Consumers are defying their interests because of the norm of Christmas time spending. Layaway, once left to the dustbin of history and outmoded shopping models, is back to accommodate these new trends. Though the U.S. economy is suffering in many ways, ways it hasn’t for some time, the phenomenon and expectation of the commercialization of Christmas, and the newly refounded layaway programs, keeps consumer spending up. This flies in the face of many consumers best interests. Vicarious consumption proves to the consumer, however, that things are still normal and people are still doing well.
Gary Cross and his claim that parents over-indulge their children during the Christmas holidays in order to express their wealth to outsiders is definitely accurate. Although I do so long to believe that Christmas is truly revolved around the spirit of giving, it is difficult not to notice the emphasis that has been put on what is being given.
Any other time of the year, it is seen as “spoiling” your child if you give them every item that they ask for. However, during the Christmas holidays, parents are able to shower their children in lavish gifts without anyone questioning whether or not the child really needed the item in the first place. Even if families don’t necessarily have the means to pay for everything their children want, they are more than willing to max out a credit card or save all year just for this one particular day. Competition not only arises between kids comparing their Christmas gifts, but one of the bigger and maybe even more worrisome competitions is between the parents.
Advertisements such as the Kay Jewelers commercials are perfect demonstrations of how the media portrays the idea that women, especially mothers or wives, expect diamonds in some form or fashion during the holidays. These advertisements make the diamonds seem as if they are accessible to the everyday family. The same kind of advertising can be directed toward the younger generations as well. Best Buy’s “Game on Santa” commercials showed a mother buying her children Kindles and digital cameras. When children are exposed to this kind of advertising, how could they expect any homemade toy?
Now, with all of that being said, I do still believe that Christmas is still largely centered around spending time with the family, and I do not agree that this family time is ONLY for parents to pamper their children with presents. However, I think it might be time for American families to rethink the importance and meaning of the Christmas holidays.
Growing up in my family, the holidays were a huge deal. We would gather around the tree and spend hours opening presents. It was everyone’s favorite day of the year, but not just because of the receiving of presents, a large part of the enjoyment was spending the day with my whole family which does not happen often and seeing the look on their faces when they would open a present that I put effort into looking for and making sure they would like.
Gary Cross’s view of the American Christmas and it being about the spending of money on presents to show off one’s wealth is I believe a bad way of depicting Christmas. The act of giving presents to your child at least one day a year is a tradition that should keep going. I believe the majority of parents give their kids presents with the expectation of making their child happy, and if those gifts somehow boast about the wealth of the parents then that is further down the list of expectations for the parents, at least this is how my parents felt. According to The NY Times the act of giving gifts is important in the role of interaction and the bonding of a family. Psychologists also believe that the giver of the gifts often reaps more “psychological benefits” then the recipient. While it is okay to cut back on spending during the holidays, and not overly spoil your child with outrageous gifts, it is still important to keep the gift giving experience alive because if it were gone then you would be missing out on an important connection with your family.
While Christmas has become bigger and bigger during the last century and the act of gift giving has become more extravagant, I still believe that the main purpose of Christmas is still understood. Even if the world is made aware of our wealth by our giving that does not mean it is a bad. In 2006, Americans donated almost $300 billion to charities and without the wealth of our nation these donations never would have been made. According to Tracy Ryan, an associate professor of advertising research at Virginia Commonwealth, “It [gift-giving] shows that a lot of the pleasure is in the giving, knowing you’ve taken care of someone.”
While I was reading “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys” by the Gary Cross, Cross argues that Christmas gifts are used as a tool to show parents’ wealth. Cross’ argument bothered me because what I experienced, I had different perspective about Christmas in America. I felt that American’s Christmas culture is more focus on the children. When I came to America for the first time, I lived with families who have very Americanized life style and values. My host mom ‘Debbie’, started to make Christmas wish-list for her children as days of Christmas was getting closer and closer. We shopped together for children’s gift. When Debbie tried to find perfect gift for her daughter, Debbie didn’t buy the gift to show her wealth. And also she didn’t care about what her neighbors thought about her family. She was excited to pick up her daughter’s gift rather than thinking that what their neighbor might say about them. On Christmas morning, her daughter un wrapped her gift and on her face she had the biggest smile and my host parents were happy that she liked it. This was my experience about Christmas in America and many commercial films cover this scene of family on Christmas morning.
In the Wal-Mart commercial film for Christmas 2010, children are using various ways to wake up their parents. They jump on the bed, shake their parents and they even try to make dad drink water to wake him up. In CF (commercial film), Story delivers message about how children are happy and trilled about Christmas gift and also how parents are happy to see their child excited about gift.
At this point, I disagree Perri Watts’ opinion on February 3, 2012 “Christmas: Is It Really About the Children?” Perri said “Today, Christmas gifts are not necessarily about making the child happy, or giving them the toy they’ve been waiting for all year; it’s about keeping up with the Jones’ and making sure everyone in the neighborhood knows that you are wealthy and financially stable enough to give your family everything they want and more.” Even though the price of gift might vary depends on family’s wealth and financial stability, happiness of unwrapping Christmas gift in the morning for children is just same as parents picking gift for their kid. And Christmas is all about family’s happiness.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.