The gift economy

Our Holiday Toy Survey elicited some wondrous insights about the state of holiday cheer and chagrin in America today.

By Carol Lloyd

In the world’s most gluttonous nation (according to Knowledge Magazine — a British rag, so consume that with a grain of salt), it’s easy to assume that the holidays are just a time to let consumerism ring.

But our 500 parents who shared their parenting, spending, and penny-pinching habits around the holidays offered a surprisingly diverse and sometimes conflicting response to the year’s most cherished, charitable, and extravagant holiday. Is this a time of family and spirituality or rapacious overspending? Is it a time to hunker down with an old-fashioned game of chess, or max out your credit card so your child gets the latest electronic candy?

GreatSchools parents weighed in, creating a complex and sometimes moving portrait of families balancing the desire to give their children everything they never got with instilling in them a sense of gratitude and generosity.

Here's a handful of responses to our question about gift-giving traditions, hinting at what’s trending in American households this holiday season.

We buy toys to inspire

"We prefer simple toys that encourage creativity through many different possible uses. We do not like plastic toys or toys that are designed to entertain and therefore limit the child's creativity."

We declare: Santa is not dead!

"We wrap each child's gift in different paper from Santa. We don't use the same wrapping paper for gifts from each other."

"We get notes from Santa. Each kid gets something you read/want/need/wear, and usually Santa brings the whole family something like a board game."

"Some Gifts from Santa are not wrapped ... this is getting hard to do ... hard to make it look like an elf made the toys you know??"

We balance the gimme with some giving

"In addition to traditional gift giving, our family participates in community projects to give back, such as adopt-a-family and winter nights, where we work at a shelter overnight."

"Every year we pick a person or group of people that we can do something for to make their Christmas better. One year my siblings and I brought gifts for all the children in two classes that were in Newark. One year we did food donations and gave a carload of groceries to a family in need. One year we send boxes of items to the soldiers."

"We allow our children to open 1 gift on Christmas Eve. Only 1 or 2 gifts from Santa, usually the thing they want most. We encourage family members to purchase savings bonds. They also have to help pick out gifts for a child or family in need."

"Holidays are about being with the ones you love not what you have. I teach it's better to give."

"We buy for needy families instead of each other."

"We always adopt a family with the same number of children we have, and buy gifts, food, etc to help them celebrate the holidays. We write down what we did, and put it on the Christmas tree as a reminder of what the holidays are about."

Our inner children are green with envy…

"Now the kids have way cooler toys with so much more imagination and color."

On the other hand… the hardship was good for us!

"What I had as a kid with what they have today are light years apart. When I was a kid most of our toys we invented or imagined. Today, television, video games have created a surreal world for our children which is in no way, shape, or form shaping our kids to do better in school or prepare for a career."

Hey kids, it’s Christmas, not Clausmas!

"We do not teach Santa Claus in our home, which is different from how my husband and I were both raised. We do attend a Christian Christmas church service, which is also different from our upbringing."

"We celebrate CHRISTMAS traditionally and SPIRITUALLY... family, gifts, food, etc., however, we place more emphasis on Jesus' birth than when I was a child. Additionally, we have added making gingerbread houses, cookies, ornaments and gifts, as well as writing letters to 'Santa'."

Actually it’s Hanukkah

"Current traditions are different than what I grew up with, because I have relatives who celebrate Christmas. My children now celebrate Hanukkah with my wife and I. But in recognition of other family members who are not Jewish, we also celebrate Christmas with them."

"I still give my kids a present each night of Hanukkah, but I don't buy them one myself for every night — the presents from their grandparents and aunts and uncles are spread out among those nights too, so I end up buying only two or three of them. The first night is always something small, and there is always one night on which their "present" is a donation to a charity they care about, made in their name. When they're a little older, another night's present will be a contribution to their savings account. I want them to learn that gifts aren't always selfish or frivolous, and that they can take pleasure in a gift which gives to somebody else, or to their own later welfare, in addition to taking pleasure in something selfish which they can enjoy right away."

"My parents were Catholic and celebrated Christmas. My husband and I are atheist and do not celebrate any holidays at home. We do, however, go to his mom's house for Hanukkah and my parents' house for Christmas."

Scratch that, it’s the economy, stupid!

"We give less and less each year due to the economy."

"We have a tradition in our family...its called the poverty tradition. Meaning that, if the present you want costs a lot; then you will probably only get that one or two gifts. And socks and underwear."

We give what we never got (can you spell overcompensation)?

"I grew up in a household that did not do anything on the holidays so I spoil my children."

"We barely got anything when I was little and I try to give my daughter the best."

"I grew up poor. Christmas was lean. I tend to overcompensate with my children. But we still keep many Christmas traditions... presents on Christmas morning... church... Santa is real... the same Christmas music. Our new tradition, the youngest gets on my shoulders to put the angel on top of the tree."

"Try to spoil the crap out of my kids. Both my wife and I are active duty Navy and deploy regularly. So I take every available opportunity to do the same."

The tradition of $pending

"Very traditional. Each kid gets about $300 worth of toys."

"[We give] 20 gifts for each kid every year worked within a budget."

A venerable tradition of… griping

"Right now my in-laws r dominating everything! I hate it"

"Bringing coal back."

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.