- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

It is not necessarily the mall parking lot that provides the biggest challenge to families at Christmastime. The toughest part of the season isn’t finding something to wear to a holiday party. The hardest part, particularly for families who put the brakes on materialism the other 364 days a year, is dealing with the crush of sources that tell children what they should get. Chicken Dance Elmo? Swan Lake Barbie? Game Cube?

How about peace on Earth and good will toward men?

“The holidays can be so challenging,” says Nathan Dungan, author of the book “Prodigal Sons and Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child’s ATM.” “The marketing is ramped up exponentially, and every year it seems like it is getting more difficult to back away and keep the holidays simple.”

That is why many families go into December with a plan. Joan Frautschi, mother of 7-year-old twins in Oak Hill, says she sees lots of peer pressure.

“I have told my kids that baby Jesus got three gifts, so that’s what you get from Santa,” Mrs. Frautschi says. “My daughter still handed me a list with 17 items on it. I told her to narrow it down to five or six items. My son wanted a bike ramp thing. He probably won’t get that, or the puppy he asked for.”

Keeping her children’s expectations realistic helps everyone, she says.

“What if you have this big list and you can’t get the items?” Mrs. Frautschi says.

Narrowing it down and expecting just a few choice gifts means everyone will be pleased on Christmas morning, she says.

Pamela Wood of Clifton is trying hard to make sure Christmas in her house will not be dictated by the toy-store circular. Mrs. Wood, her husband, Brian, and children Jack, 5, Abigail, 3, and Joshua, 2, celebrate Christmas Eve with a birthday party for Jesus.

“We make a cake and put up streamers and balloons,” she says. “We sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Gifts still are given and received at the Wood home. The family tries to stay away from mountains of material items, though.

“They already have so much,” Mrs. Wood says. “One of our presents this year will be a trip to Pennsylvania to see Thomas the Tank Engine at a railroad track. The older kids will get swim lessons for a gift. I like these things because they are experiences that say, ‘We love and value you.’”

The gift of time

Ideas such as Mrs. Wood’s are good ones, says Betsy Taylor, president of the Maryland-based Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit advocacy group. Ms. Taylor says many people have become so caught up in “What are you getting?” that they have forgotten what is at the core of holiday celebrations.

“There has always been commercialism around the holidays, but it seems to increase every year,” she says. “It seems like the ads are becoming year-round. Everyone is encouraging us to spend but not asking us about how we are spending the holidays. Rather than the experience, it becomes all about the buying. In reality, people get into debt and get stressed out.”

Ms. Taylor encourages people to step back and look at what they want from the holidays, not what they want for the holidays.

“The holidays may still involve some gift-giving, but try to put the emphasis on family, not on gifts,” she says. “The holidays are a good opportunity to talk about what you value.”

In researching her book “What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy,” Ms. Taylor interviewed more than 2,000 children. She found that although children and teens are under great pressure to have the latest clothes, CDs and DVDs, what they really want can’t be boxed up in red-and-green wrapping paper.

“There is a lot of pressure on kids today,” Ms. Taylor says. “They are getting squeezed out of being kids by our very fast-paced, commercial culture. What a lot of them really want is more time with parents and time to be kids when they do not have to be performing.”

Fylis Peckham of Takoma Park says she will be giving gifts of time to her 14-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Ms. Peckham and her daughter, Rachel, were shopping together at the Center for a New American Dream’s fifth annual Alternative Gift Fair a few weeks ago. Ms. Peckham picked up some beautifully designed tickets to offer her time to her children.

“We’ll definitely give regular gifts, too, but this is important,” she says.

Some ways to offer the gift of time include:

• Providing homemade dinners to be delivered to the recipient’s house.

• Doing chores for the recipient, such as doing the dishes or taking out the trash.

• Taking an elderly relative to lunch.

• Offering a particular service, such as gardening, hairstyling or tax preparation.

• Baby-sitting.

• Going on a family trip or outing.

Monica Speach, a Chantilly mother who home-schools her two teenagers, incorporates family time into her holiday celebration by volunteering with her family.

The family volunteers with a Catholic relief organization to help people in rural West Virginia for two weeks each summer. More recently, they have begun helping with various tasks in November and December.

“It is an amazing experience,” Ms. Speach says. “It is exactly what the season is about. Now that my children are older, it is not so much about the gifts anymore. We help with food preparation at the distribution bank. My son ended up playing the violin for them last year.”

Mrs. Wood also is teaching her children the custom of giving at the holidays. The three youngsters choose a few of their toys to donate to less fortunate children.

Mr. Dungan says teaching children to share and save should go along with learning to spend. This share-save-spend formula should be part of family life all the time, but its value is even greater around the holidays, he says.

“Share is the great opposite of all the messages children get to make them feel as though they never have enough,” Mr. Dungan says. “Saving is important, and they might not appreciate it now, but that $50 you put in the college account will mean a lot more in 10 years than some gift that gets thrown in a corner.”

A $100 Christmas

The average American household carries $9,000 in credit card debt, according to CardWeb, a credit card research and information service. The average gift list consists of 10 persons, and most shoppers allow for at least $50 per person, states MACResearch, a shopping mall and investment company.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that a survey of 1,000 people by the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services showed that 54 percent of respondents were still paying off debt from the 2002 holiday season.

These statistics are nothing new. They just somehow get ignored every December.

That is why author Bill McKibben is encouraging families to be creative — and frugal — in December. Mr. McKibben’s book “Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas,” explains how American culture got where it is and what families can do to put the brakes on holiday greed.

“Encouraging people to spend lots of money at Christmas has been a long marketing effort,” he says from his Vermont office. “And for a long time, it made sense because we didn’t have much stuff. But that is no longer the situation. We have a thriving storage-locker industry now just to hold the stuff our houses can’t contain.”

Mr. McKibben challenges families to spend just $100 at the holidays. He says one might be surprised at the reaction from extended family.

“Most people share the unhappiness at how commercialized Christmas has become,” he says. Mr. McKibben says to consult early with extended family members — perhaps right after the previous Christmas — to give them time to get used to the idea. Children might surprise you, too, he says.

“It is not that impossible to convince kids,” Mr. McKibben says. “Remind them it is someone else’s birthday, not yours. They know what a birthday means.”

While $100 is a goal, Mr. McKibben knows it will be an unreasonable one, particularly for big families.

“It is just good to have some kind of anchor to hold onto,” he says.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “GIFTS FROM THE HEART: 450 SIMPLE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR FAMILY’S CHRISTMAS MORE MEANINGFUL,” BY VIRGINIA BRUCKER, WE BELIEVE PUBLICATIONS, 1999. THIS BOOK HAS MANY IDEAS FOR A NONCOMMERCIAL HOLIDAY CELEBRATION.

• “HUNDRED DOLLAR HOLIDAY: THE CASE FOR A MORE JOYFUL CHRISTMAS,” BY BILL MCKIBBEN, SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1998. THIS BOOK CHALLENGES CONSUMERS TO SPEND JUST $100 ON CHRISTMAS.

• “WHAT KIDS REALLY WANT THAT MONEY CAN’T BUY,” BY BETSY TAYLOR, WARNER, 2003. THIS BOOK EXAMINES MATERIALISM IN OUR CULTURE AND EXPLAINS HOW CHILDREN CAN BENEFIT FROM MORE TIME WITH PARENTS, NOT MORE THINGS.

• “PRODIGAL SONS AND MATERIAL GIRLS: HOW NOT TO BE YOUR CHILD’S ATM,” BY NATHAN DUNGAN, JOHN WILEY & SONS, 2003. MR. DUNGAN EXPLAINS HOW OVERSPENT AMERICANS ARE AND OUTLINES HIS SHARE-SAVE-SPEND PHILOSOPHY IN THIS BOOK.

ASSOCIATION —

• CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN DREAM, 6930 CARROLL AVE., SUITE 900, TAKOMA PARK, MD 20912. PHONE: 301/891-3683. WEB SITE: WWW.NEWDREAM.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT GROUP URGES AMERICANS TO BECOME CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS. THE GROUP’S SIMPLIFY THE HOLIDAYS CAMPAIGN FEATURES INFORMATION ABOUT HOW TO AVOID HOLIDAY STRESS, INCORPORATE FAMILY TIME INTO THE SEASON AND GIVE MEANINGFUL GIFTS WITHOUT OVERSPENDING.

ONLINE —

• HEIFER INTERNATIONAL (WWW.HEIFER.ORG), A VIRGINIA-BASED NONPROFIT GROUP, OFFERS ALTERNATIVE GIFTS THAT HELP PURCHASE ANIMALS TO AID AGRICULTURAL FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES AND 125 OTHER COUNTRIES.

• National Presbyterian Church in Northwest (www.natpresch.org/AlternativeGifts.shtml) sponsored an alternative gift fair this season. Purchases still can be made through the church’s Web site.

• Alternative Gifts International (www.altgifts.org) is another nonprofit group that has a catalog for alternative gift purchases.

• Alternatives (www.simpleliving.org) is a nonprofit, faith-based group that encourages people to challenge consumerism. The site has many holiday gift ideas.


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