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’ article Modern Childhood, Modern Toys he draws connections to Christmas and the meaning of Santa Claus. In the times after the Civil War, toys and play became a more prominent aspect of children and their developing childhoods. When Christmas was finally recognized as a true holiday, parents began to shower their children with gifts, not to secure loyalty or represent any power differential, but to strengthen the “emotional ties within the nuclear family” (Cross, 59). As the toy manufacturing companies began producing more and more toys, the original idea of toys being handmade and born from the heart started to fade, thus the idea of Santa Claus came to be. Children would write to Santa in the North Pole with their Christmas wish list and parents would go to seek the gifts the children asked for, only if the children’s behavior had been good.
From the movie A Christmas Story: a childhood favorite that depicts the spirit of Christmas for a young boy.
In our current society, much emphasis has been placed on electronic gadgets rather than the traditional knitted sweater from Grandma or handmade wooden trinket from Dad. Instead of transformers and comic books, little boys wish for Nintendo DS’ or an Xbox. Nevertheless, gifts have grown increasingly expensive and a strain has been placed on parents to provide their children with the perfect Christmas. Cross explains this strain as “Parents teach their children to believe that Santa will bring them heaps of toys which no one had to sacrifice or even pay for.” (Cross, 60) While a parent may be able to afford the Xbox 360, the games that accompany the console are still very pricey. In present day, a family’s wealth may be depicted by how many of these new era gifts are given at Christmas time. While the parents are not purchasing the gifts for themselves, or showing off their wealth in prestigious vehicles, all of the newly expensive Christmas presents will speak loud enough for that family’s status. In the commercials that air in preparation of Christmas, many of them this last year especially started to show mother’s (in particular) developing an obsession with purchasing everything they could without facing bankruptcy in order to provide their children with that perfect Christmas experience.
Some commercials went as far as to show mother’s competing with the made-up character Santa Claus, to prove that they no longer needed him to make their children happy. With all the discounts that stores give on the expensive presents, they could do it themselves. This commercial in particular shows the mother buying the fun, cool and most modern electronic gifts while Santa is trying to fit in a small wooden truck, that looks like it would have made a little boys day 60 years ago.
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.