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.