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.
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.”
In Gary Cross’ “Modern Children, Modern Toys” chapter, he shares his thesis that Christmas giving provides an opportunity for modern parents to show off their wealth and spoil their children without coming off self-indulgent over-spenders. (59) In today’s modern society, Cross’ thesis still holds true, as many modern parents continue to feel obligated to spoil their children through Christmas gifts, often because they feel driven to keep up with the gift giving of their friends, families, or co-workers. The media leads modern parents to believe that their role in the Christmas festivities is to indulge their children’s desires and parents who do not fear being seen as lesser parents than their peers. The expectations of gift giving in American culture are hard to combat, as many bloggers have shown the excess to which modern parents are spoiling their children because of culture pressures. One blogger claims that the average American parent spends up to seven hundred fifty dollars each year on Christmas gifts. Perhaps the most driving point is the fact that some gaming consoles have sold for as high as 30,000 dollars on EBay in the pre-holiday rush. With parents spending in excess for consoles that might normally be in the 300-dollar range, it becomes clear that some modern parents feel the need to constantly strive for the best gifts to keep their kids in touch with the most up-to-date popular culture. Cross even claims that “Christmas had long given permission to extravagance” (59), emphasizing the point that parents feel the need to bombard their children with extravagant gift giving each December. With the added pressure given by the media in commercials and television, parents are constantly coerced into upping the Christmas giving each year. The Kmart commercial from 2010, in particular, emphasizes a large amount of gifts and even places the family in a setting in which they’re surrounded by other parents to impress. Kmart tries to make the excessive gift giving affordable in their advertisement, in order to give all parents a chance to impress their friends through gift giving. Trying to represent the ideal situation, parents then continue to purchase excesses of Christmas gifts and are able to show off their love for their child to all their friends through the seemingly excessive spending. Through examinations in blogs and commercial ads, it becomes clear that Cross’ thesis about the desire to spoil children during the holidays as a means of emphasizing economic stances is still present in modern-day gift giving.
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.