Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Little House Christmas Trap

Every year at this time, some of the mommy blogs I read or check in with will feature a post containing these points:

1. Christmas is insanely materialistic.
2. The Ingalls family of "Little House on the Prairie" fame had small, simple Christmases.
3. We need to recapture the joys of a Homespun Prairie Christmas. Right now. Or else. On, Donner and Blitzen--to the craft store!

I can understand the impulses behind these posts. Christmas has become an insanely materialistic shop-fest, an over the top carnival of riotous overindulgence, an endless drumbeat of the call to spend money frivolously on things we don't need and don't even want.

But unfortunately, while point #1 may be perfectly true, points 2 and 3 don't necessarily follow.

In the first place, while we may feel a kind of awe at the notion that Laura Ingalls and her family could be content with such little gifts, an orange, a penny, a candy-stick, a homemade toy or garment, and the like, we aren't really looking at it the right way if we insist on focusing on the simplicity. The Ingalls family's lives were tremendously austere, compared to ours today--not on some principle of great virtue, but simply because that was the way most people lived. So to the children, Christmas morning was as much a feast as it is to our own children, because such delights as exotic fruit, actual money of their own, and candy bought from the store and made with expensive white sugar were real treats, not some political statement of anti-materialism. And the homemade gifts were the rarest and most precious of all, because it meant that Ma or Pa had, in the midst of lives that most of us would find characterized by unending drudgery, set aside their most priceless possession--time--to create these well-loved treasures.

Now, none of that is to say that we aren't living lives of disordered materialism--because we are, and as Christians we must guard against these temptations and struggle to live lives of poverty in spirit even in the midst of material excess. But this is not something which may be done at Christmas without reference to the other 364 days of the year--because to decide to implement a policy of austerity and thrift on Christmas morning is going to be of little avail in rooting out the impulse to score bargains at the January sales, and is going to add an inappropriately penitential spirit to Christmas Day itself, if the practice of restraint and moderation has not already become a part of the family's habits.

And the third point on my list above shows where the danger lies: in that we may not be fighting materialism at all, but merely transferring it from the mall to the craft store and/or the thrift shop. Because materialism is, ultimately, too much concern with the things of this world, and not enough concern with the things of the next; the woman who scours thrift stores and flea markets on a weekly basis and then congratulates herself on her "austerity" in only spending a fraction of the money that she would spend on similar items at the regular stores has missed the point. A homemade Christmas that comes from the family's customs and habits is a delight, but a homemade Christmas that first requires the expenditure of a large sum of money to equip a craft center in an unused room in the home is probably not really avoiding the materialistic habits we seek to overcome.

If the Ingalls family Christmas celebrations are inspiring, it is because even out of their simple lives Ma and Pa managed to make Christmas a time of feasting and joy. It's not necessary for us to clutter the space under the tree with every sort of plastic toy or expensive gadget to make our families happy, but it won't do much if we replace these items with piles and piles of thrift-store finds and an excess of handcrafted goods, either. If we wish to give our children the gift of avoiding materialism, we need to start by a resolution to set good habits, to avoid mindless spending, to use what we have and give away what we do not need, and to stop coveting what others have, even if what others have is a life of apparent simplicity--that will only cost us $32,000 at Pottery Barn or $6,000 at Ikea to re-create in our own homes.


Juli said...

I have an aunt that always brags to me about how her daughter-in-law shops garage sales "religiously" like that is some kind of wonderful virtue that I should aspire to. :) So I get what you're saying. Even if you're getting your stuff cheap, it is still materialism. I'm not saying that I am not guilty of it myself. My vice is buying books.

Apostle to Suburbia said...

Oh, Erin!
Just when I was ready to return all the kids' Christmas presents and give them each a candy cane and a box of pencils instead--you go and burst my bubble! ;)
Manufactured (Pottery Barn style) simplicity is certainly misleading. Materialism is something I fight against constantly, and not always successfully even when I'm hardly spending any money, so this is a good post for me. For me, it begins at the mailbox and making sure 99% of the catalogs go straight to the recycle bin. I realized I'm not helping my kids in defeating acquisitivenss by putting temptations in front of them--they hardly ever see commercials but they do see catalogs. Also, I need to spend less time browsing internet stores myself. Something to work on. Regina Doman has a good post up today on her Three Gift Rule for Christmas. We do a similar thing for birthdays and have tried to do it at Christmas, but as I commented at her site, haven't been as successful at Christmastime.

Glad you are getting better!

Erin Manning said...

Thanks, LeeAnn!

My problem with the "Three Gift Rule" is that quite honestly my girls do enjoy some simple "little" things, like a bottle of shiny nail polish (now that they're old enough for it) or some yarn to crochet with. Sticking to a "three gift rule" always seemed to put a lot of pressure on me to come up with three special, meaningful, exciting or intriguing things for each of them--and I was right back to the materialism.

Our girls get to ask for two things: one from us and one from "St. Nick." There are reasonable monetary limits. Aside from that, though, I usually find them each something they need to wear (sweaters are always good) and a few of those small items, plus a small religious gift. Since they're all girls and close in age, I can keep the "extras" all the same (e.g. a cardigan for each, yarn in a basket with a new crochet hook).

I think the important thing is finding a balance, and families do this in different ways. But that temptation to cut back to pencils and peppermint sticks is a strong one! :)

matthew archbold said...

Thanks. You cleared my head a little on this one.
I now see Half-Pint and Mary as the true materialistic heathens they actually were. Thanks;)

Erin Manning said...

You don't know the half of it, Matthew! Laura gets a little older, starts living in town--and starts coveting *visiting cards* of all things. And she gets them. And one year she peeks and finds the gilt-edged Tennyson volume that's her Christmas present...

And later Ma asks, worriedly, if Laura doesn't really want to marry Almanzo 'cause he owns some pretty nice horses...

Yep. Total materialism goin' on on the Prairie.


/sarc. obviously. :)

Renee said...

"the woman who scours thrift stores and flea markets on a weekly basis and then congratulates herself on her "austerity" in only spending a fraction of the money that she would spend on similar items at the regular stores has missed the point."

Ouch, ouch. That's me. Piffle. Time to rethink. Thanks, really, I think. No, really, thank you. I needed that.

Dymphna said...

My mother remembers getting an orange for Christmas and being delighted but that wasn't because her parents were practicing simplicity. Those three oranges, the clothes and maybe if things were good on the farm that year, an actual toy for her children cost my grandmother dearly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Red. My husband is one of those people that loves being generous and giving gifts to our children. It's out of love. I tend to be a bit more protestant (ie frugle) in my nature. But is it so bad to be overly generous with your family and friends if you can? I'm all for cutting back on shopping, in fact, every year that's what I give up for Lent (except for food and household essentials). But at Christmas? Not us.

Anonymous said...

Many Catholic nowadays remind of Scrooge from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or the White Witch in the Narnia story, with her contempt for the vulgarity of the popular Christmas celebrations. Many Catholics and Christians are so angry about the commercialism they throw out the 'baby with the bath water." In their wanting not to be materialistic, they forget to share joy of Christ. They seem to focus instead on looking down on others for their materialism and proving they are holier by not celebrating - the Joy of Christ's birth!

Chesterton said the pagan myths were “good dreams” which expressed the longing of mankind for Christ. Nowadays I guess we live in a re-paganized world, but that longing for Christ remains. God was born in a stable in order to embrace and redeem all of creation!

So, I decided this year, that instead of being frustrated by the Christmas music and commercialism and Merry Christmas greetings during Advent (*gasp!* - don’t they know it’s not Christmas yet?!) to let that joy and peace at the heart of all Christmas trappings transform MY countenance. I will make it a point to smile at people and not be stress to celebrate with joy Christ's birth and to respond to the clerk telling me to have a Merry Christmas “Thank-you and God Bless you!’

fedsped said...

at least the clerk wishes you Merry Christmas. Here we are celebrating Eid, and then it will be Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa...Happy Holidays covers it for most of us. I do however have a button that reads "It's OK to wish me Merry Christmas!"