Friday, November 28

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

The other day, I was reading a pretty polarizing piece over at Smart Spending: Just say not to Christmas gifts.

The post recapped another step in Ramit's challenge (remember that 30-day challenge I discussed?): don't buy presents this year.

Really, though, the piece wasn't polarizing. That would imply that there were two sides. Of the 115 comments, there were only a few that disagreed with the idea.

The rest were people ranting about the crass commercialization of Christmas. How they're disheartened and discouraged by it. How they agree that it's better not to participate -- except, perhaps, to buy a couple small items for kids.

Now, I'm not one to bemoan people's decision to abdicate rampant consumerism. In fact, good for them. I think people cutting back is a great thing. (Of course, Tim and I are still exchanging gifts this year. I feel like the first married Christmas is an important one to celebrate.)

That said, I have to say I'm puzzled by all these assertions that Christmas has only recently become about greed and overconsumption.

Most of the people mention small children -- so I know they are probably no more than 10 years older than me. This means their Christmas experience couldn't be that much different from mine.

And I distinctly remember the ads. The myriad ads. There were so many, telling us we needed to buy to show our love.

OK, the advertisers were a bit more subtle than that. But the message was clear: Spend, spend, spend. And then spend some more.

There were ads for jewelry, for toys, and probably lots of other stuff that passed in one ear and out the other.

The point is, I grew up well aware that Christmas was seized upon by retailers as a prime money-making opportunity. That was never in question. So if I remember this so distinctly, why don't these other people?

Mostly, I think it's about what we want to remember. Of course we want to remember a simpler time. (My mom assures me that there is a fabulous book about this subject called The Way We Never Were.)

We all want our childhoods to be more pure and innocent than they were. Just as the 1950s weren't all sock hops and sharing malts, our childhood Christmases weren't just about family togetherness -- at least, not if you watched any amount of television.

We want to remember better times. And perhaps a few families did succeed in sheltering their kids from the "BUY BUY BUY"ness of the holidays. Some families did accentuate togetherness and simple fun over crass consumerism. Some kids were probably taught that gifts are only part of it.

But, by and large, (or is "buy and large") we were kids. We wanted stuff. And we wanted it because the TV told us we did. C'mon, we all saw the same commercials, lusted after the same (mostly crappy) toys. Most of which were discarded in disinterest by the end of the week, some even by the end of the day. Transformers, Teddy Ruxpin, Hot Wheels, Lazer Tag, Barbie, My Little Pony, Nerf, Super Soaker. Any of this ring a bell?

No matter our parents' best intentions -- no matter our own best intentions -- we were interested less in holiday spirit than material possessions. We called our friends after the presents were unwrapped and compared our loot.

Christmas wasn't just about carols and cheesy TV claymation. It was, for most kids, about the latest toys and games. The excitement of the presents under the tree. Sure, we were excited about the holiday spirit, but materialism trumps spiritualism for most kids. Not because they're jaded, but because kids are big on instant gratification. If they want something, they want it. There's no weighing the pros and cons of a purchase. That's adult stuff.

So any adults who now remember the purity of the holidays and being excited about cocoa by the fire... Well, they were either the exceptions to the rule or they've adjusted their memories to suit their current needs.

There is another element to the equation, though. Maybe these people remember "simpler" Christmases because they remember cheaper Christmases.

Over the last couple decades, toy prices weren't the only things to inflate. The sheer selection of technology and gadgetry has expanded exponentially. In other words, people feel like holidays are about stuff because, well, there's even more to buy.

Granted, there were always plenty of toys we all begged for; but now those toys get more and more specialized, which means more expensive. Technology is increasingly becoming kid-friendly. Kids get MP3 players, gaming consoles, gadget-filled cell phones that play MP3s and games.

It's more and more common for kids to want/expect doodads that cost well over $100. Even the handheld games (PSP, Nintendo DS) are $129. Then you have $100 shoes and bikes and plenty of $30+ action figures or dolls.

Maybe it just seems like Christmas is more commercialized because the wish list totals now look like a monthly mortgage. (Insert sub-prime joke here.)

The fact is, Christmas hasn't gotten more commercialized. But commercialization has gotten a lot pricier.

But these same people who are complaining? Lots of them have discovered the very simple answer: You don't have to buy them everything they want. Heck, you could raise your kids to see (at least partially) the folly of giving a 12-year-old kid an iPod Touch.

Sure, there will always be some societal pressure you can't control, but, more often than not, you can instill your values in your kids. And if not, then they think you're the absolute worst parent -- meanest, least caring, most evil -- in the whole world.

Chances are, even if they temporarily go gadget-crazy as adults, they quickly get sick of having the "cutting edge" stuff become yesterday's news -- even as they're still paying for it. Then, they may just revise that little grudge they're holding against you.

So, too all those who kvetch about Christmas becoming retail-oriented, I challenge you to go back over your own wish lists that you used to compile. Chances are, you'll find you were just as eager for the latest fads as the kids are today. It's just that yours seemed a lot more rational through the eyes of a kid.

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Blogger DogAteMyFinances said...

True, I remember in the early 90s the Toys R Us catalog came only at Christmas, which I always found odd. It had a list at the end, and I remember you could circle what you wanted. My siblings and I used different color markers.

The difference for me is that I always knew I wouldn't get that stuff, that just isn't how it was. I had no expectations to let down.

The thing I miss the most is my grandparents, and all my aunts and uncles. As life has gone on, people have spread out, and the family just isn't there like it used to be.

November 29, 2008 at 3:24 PM

Blogger Meg said...

Most people want to think that there was some golden age way back when, or even just when they were younger. Truth is, I think we're just awfully forgetful and very selective when writing history ;) I have a degree in classical studies and I can say with certainty that even many of the ancient Romans and Greeks had the same selective amnesia, lol.

I do wonder, though, if there is more pressure now when credit is still more available then decades ago. And there seem to be more big ticket items that kids are interested in. Growing up, a big ticket item was a bike or a Nintendo. And those were gifts that you didn't get year after year. Now, there is always a new game system, music players that cost a lot more than the Walkman I got one Christmas, laptops, t.v.s for each kid's bedroom, etc. And whereas Christmas used to center more around kids, it seems like we're now expected to buy stuff for extended family, friends, teachers, coworkers, the mailperson, etc.

At the risk of being Scrooges, my husband and I have made it common knowledge that we're not giving gifts and so far everyone we've told has seemed just as relieved as us. I'd rather just focus on spending time with people than spending time in a store trying to figure out what doodad they don't already have and would want but wouldn't buy themselves but is affordable and sends the right message. And personally, I'd be perfectly happy not getting anything because each year there are least a few things that make me think, "O.k., how long do I really have to keep this?"

November 30, 2008 at 9:55 AM

Blogger Abby said...


I personally like the system I grew up with: One large-ish (read: more than $30) then a few more small gifts. Kind of like an orbit: The small stuff orbits around the bigger stuff.

But then I'm one of those folks who would rather get one really thoughtful gift than 10 that had no thought put into them.

I definitely agree with you about family. It's just not the same without a few people to open presents with and/or just spend the day with.


Sounds like you and I agree about selective amnesia -- and about the fact that so much more is expected these days. I don't know if it's credit or not, but kids have developed an awful lot of entitlement about technology.

If you shop sales, etc, you can kind of make your way through all the technology -- like when Tim's parents and I combined his birthday and Christmas gifts and pooled our money for his Xbox 360. But that was about all he got that year, too.

I still say that I'm a big fan of my parents' system: I had to save for 50% of whatever expensive item I wanted. Granted, the most expensive item I ever wanted was $100, but that was back in the '80s/early '90s. And I was pretty easy to please I guess.

That said, I think your and your husband's approach to gifts is great. My friends and I don't exchange gifts at holidays. For birthdays, when we're organized enough, we take each other out for a drink.

In the end, you get cluttered with less *stuff* (I, too, worry about the appearance of donating gifts that I no longer need... it always feels awkward) and you spend less money/energy overall.

November 30, 2008 at 12:19 PM

Blogger Donna said...

Meg: I think you're right about available credit being a problem. A woman who commented on one of my Smart Spending articles said that she was told she was a horrible person because she required her daughter to save half the cost of an American Girl doll, at which point Mom would supply the rest of the cash. (Sound familiar, Abby???)
Mom would then write a check, have her daughter fill out the form, and mail it off. In the time that it took her daughter to save the money she had a lot of fun reading the catalog and anticipating the eventual arrival of the doll. And when it arrived, the doll really meant something to her.
Well, according to the mother of one of the girl's friends, it was abusive to make a child wait that long. After all, she scolded the girl's mother, you have a credit card -- you could get it for her within 48 hours.
So yes, I think that having credit can, in some cases, create debt. Here's an example: You're having a pretty good year, paid your credit cards way down, you decide to "reward" your family by buying a little more than you otherwise would (but it was all on sale!). The day after Christmas, you lose your job. Suddenly payback's gonna take a little longer...
That may sound defeatist, but how many people never saw the layoff coming?
I'm for spending a little BELOW your means. Full disclosure: I have credit cards. I use one in particular for just about everything, so I can get the airline miles. But I pay it all off each month. I carried debt for a while, i.e., the cost of my divorce lawyer. I think that's characterized as "good" debt... ;-)

December 1, 2008 at 2:47 PM

Blogger Meg said...

Wow, Donna, that story is scary -- but I've known enough people who probably think that way. I've known plenty of people who suffered real child abuse and it wasn't that their parents made them earn things. To make a comparison between the two... well, there aren't words and those people should be ashamed of themselves. It sounds like they have have their own issues they are trying hard to justify.

My own mom made similar deals with me and I think I was the better for it. In my case, she and I split the cost of an English saddle I wanted for horseback riding -- and I loved that saddle all the more for it.

I'm very thankful right now that we can choose to forgo Christmas presents without too much flak. I think things would be a lot different if we had kids. And maybe we would still have some presents then. But I hope that we'd do it in enough moderation that they'd appreciate the gifts.

December 1, 2008 at 5:32 PM


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