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Simplify Your Life / ELAINE ST JAMES

Don't Let Madison Avenue Run Christmas

November 29, 1998|ELAINE ST JAMES

Dear Elaine: My husband and I would like to get away from the commercialism of Christmas, but it's almost impossible to do when you have kids. Our children are inundated by television advertising, and they and their friends are already talking about the latest gadget that all the kids are getting for Christmas. We want to say no this year, but how do we convince our children that we're not being Scrooges?

--Nearly Done In by Christmas

Dear Nearly: I often hear from parents who are troubled by the impact television commercials have on their children, especially during the months before Christmas, so you're not alone. It helps to remember that children are not naturally materialistic. It's a learned response that, in many cases, we've taught them. But take heart from the parents who've told me that when they stress the spirit of giving and sharing in their homes, they've found that few things provide a child with more satisfaction than seeing that she has made a positive difference in another person's life.

However, because Madison Avenue wields such a powerful influence on all our lives, it takes a committed effort on the part of parents to fight the commercial avalanche. Here are some practical steps you can take this year:

1. Set a limit on gifts. One family I heard from instituted a policy that each child could ask for two gifts--and one of them had to be nonmaterial. To their surprise and delight, they found that the nonmaterial gifts were the favorites, especially those that involved spending time with a parent. The biggest hit was a "subscription" to the Adventure of the Month Club outings provided by Dad.

2. Encourage your kids to think of gifts they can give to family members that don't need to be purchased. For example, a poem or a drawing for Grandma, a treasured toy for a younger sibling, an afternoon of baby-sitting for a relative with a small child. Ask grandparents and other family members to do the same. I know a couple who send their granddaughter an invitation every Christmas to spend two weeks with them during the summer. It's her favorite gift.

3. Make it an annual project to do Christmas for a family in need. Contact local community organizations, churches, hospitals or disaster relief agencies to locate a family. Contact the Postal Serviceand volunteer to play Santa for needy children who have sent requests to the North Pole.

4. Have your kids go through their toy boxes to select suitable items to wrap and deliver in person to the local homeless shelter. This gives your kids the opportunity to see and meet with less fortunate children who can benefit from their generosity and to experience firsthand how good it feels to do something wonderful for someone who needs help.

5. Simply refuse to buy the "hot" toy that is being promoted this year, and encourage your friends and other family members to do the same. Decide that you and your children will not be manipulated by advertising messages. Use this as the perfect opportunity to teach your kids that they don't have to have the latest gimmicky toy just because everyone else is supposedly getting it.

Finally, resist feeling guilty. Your children may not initially appreciate your idea of a simpler Christmas. But take the time to talk with them about your values. Explain that you've decided it's time to celebrate Christmas in a more meaningful way, and that Christmas means more than getting a lot of presents you don't need. Then together come up with a plan for a simpler holiday that will create a more joyous experience for all of you. Imagine the difference it would make if every parent decided to reinforce this value.


Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Christmas" and "Simplify Your Life." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111, or e-mail her at

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