"He's been asking me for weeks to get him a Nintendo DSi for Christmas," Alicia explained.
Her son, Alex, is only nine. Christmas is well over a month away but he's been relentlessly pressing for the "must-have" electronic toy that his classmates already own. Money is tight for Alicia's family these days, and the handheld device starts at 149.99. Games are extra, at $35 a pop.
Alicia doesn't indulge in expensive clothes, trendy bags, or "must have" purchases-at least for herself. But when it comes to her son, mom-guilt too easily clouds her perspective.
And retailers and advertising gurus wouldn't have it any other way. As one pollster for the retail industry put it, "It's not all about being cheap this year."
One toy company sends out something called, The Great Big Christmas Book. I foolishly thought that this advertising book might, in the midst of the toy ads, suggest the real reason for the season---the birth of Jesus Christ. Not to be. The book invites kids to "start flipping through the pages to show their parents - and Santa - the toys that will WOW them on Christmas morning," said a senior executive for the toy company. Kids can check the item off in the box provided, and mom and dad have an instant "gimme" list.
But our children's hearts are the poorer for it. Marketers manipulate the Christmas season to make our children want ever more "stuff" - to focus on how much they can "get". Remember that old joke, "He who dies with the most toys wins"? Come Christmas morning, many kids - and so many of their parents - act as if that sick joke were true.
This is hardly a new problem, of course. Our tendency to focus too much on the material aspects of Christmas, and not nearly enough on the spiritual ones, has been a problem for our culture for a very long time.True, 24/7 marketing, children's access to television and the Internet, peer pressure from classmates who are quick to rank and ridicule their classmates who don't own brand-name items, expensive toys, designer clothing and the like, the relentless pressure to fit in, and similar things may be new--or magnified, compared to what children in the past were exposed to. But the tendency to make Christmas a feast honoring consumerism and the gratification of ownership instead of the birth of Christ has been around for too many years to count.
This produces a reaction in some families. Some parents decide early on to limit Christmas gifts, or even avoid them altogether, in favor of a minimalist approach to the Christmas celebration; this can cause tension, though, with extended family, who will rarely if ever support such a decision. Other parents try to teach their young children both generosity to others and poverty of spirit, so that they are pleased to receive small, humble gifts instead of flashy expensive ones. Still others find themselves arguing over the gift situation every year, with one parent wanting to make up for his or her own sense of childhood deprivation, and the other insisting on not spoiling the children or making them greedy or focused on materialism.
I think it's possible to go too far in the direction of asceticism, though, for the simple fact that the Church does not expect us to be ascetic on her highest feast days--and Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, is certainly one of those days. The key is to find balance, to enjoy some secular celebrations without being obligated to incorporate every secular observance into one's home, and to focus on the primary spiritual and religious meaning in a way that keeps the focus on Christ, Whose birth is a part of God's greatest gift to us, the gift of salvation.
It's hard to keep that focus clear when we live in a culture that began decking the commercial halls before Halloween, and in which Christmas music is already blaring nonstop in most stores and businesses, even though it's not even Advent, yet. And when our children are surrounded by "gimme!" messages psychologically designed to create in them intense desires for something they didn't know existed until yesterday. And when an abundance of red and green creates a dizzying traffic-light message in the halls of commerce: a red that doesn't mean stop, and a green that means "Buy!" instead of "Go!" and from which the yellow light of caution and prudence is altogether absent.
But just because it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas when we're still a whole 45 days away (and 19 days from Advent) doesn't mean that we (and our children) have no choice but to become obsessed with that latest, greatest gizmo we'd like to find under the tree. We have the ability to choose to keep our eyes on Christ, and remain with Him in Ordinary Time until Advent, and then to journey with Him through that season of preparation until the bells begin to ring for the first Masses celebrating the Christmas feast, as the sky grows dark on the 24th day of December.