Overwhelmed by the Material Excess of the Holidays? Consider Scaling Back

We’ve all seen the idealized images of family holiday gatherings. They dance like sugar plums in our heads and are reflected in greeting cards, Norman Rockwell paintings, and Currier and Ives prints. And for many of us, the drive to live the picture perfect holiday becomes an exercise in excess, stress, and frustration. The secret may be to slow down, relax, and let the spirit of the season flow naturally.

By Larissa Phillips

How Much is Too Much?

This is the mandate of the holidays: that you must overdo all things. You must eat and drink too much. You must stress too muach. And, most of all, you must spend too much. If you do not fulfill these obligations, the mandate goes, your holidays are incomplete.

If you have children, the mandate is even more demanding. In addition to celebrating the holiday, you must stock those little memory banks with sugarplums and shiny red fire trucks and the overall wholesome feeling and cinnamony smell of an abundant holiday home. To do this, you must take them to various plays and ballets and 18th-century-type caroling events – and most importantly, shower them with gifts. The gifts should be sufficient to fill their stockings to the point of bursting, or to dwarf the tree (the biggest you could fit in your living room), or to wildly outdo the previous night’s Hanukkah gift.

If this pursuit of material ecstasy is not entirely appealing to you, you are not alone. If you wonder sometimes if the real meaning of the holidays is being lost in this glut of gifts, or if your child’s character is not necessarily enhanced by so many presents, you are also not alone. Countless television specials are devoted to this subject; and yet the buying spree never seems to end.

According to a 2003 holiday survey, more than half of Americans entered the holiday shopping season with debt still leftover from holiday bills from the previous year. But that didn’t stop them from increasing their spending by almost $100, up to $835 per family last Christmas, according to, a nonprofit group that counsels people in financial crisis.

And this year’s economy reports don’t seem to be stemming the tide. If anything, marketers may push even harder for the sale during years in which the market looks cloudy. So, if there is no sign of pulling the plug on the Christmas madness, who will?

Never Enough

“I think you can lose the real joy of the season,” says Laura Buddenberg, co-author of Who’s Raising Your Child? Battling the Marketers for your Child’s Heart and Soul. “All you have to do is go out Christmas shopping and you notice that instead of feeling peaceful, instead of creating family traditions, you end up teaching kids that what makes you happy is what you buy.”

Even parents who want to indulge their children may not end up with happy holiday memories. “I remember [as a child] feeling so depressed and disappointed after all the presents were opened,” says Shari Edwards, a Manhattan mom. “There was never enough to satisfy that incredible expectation.”

Ann Laurel, a Brooklyn mother of two, says that when they were younger her kids were thrilled with a modest number of presents. “As they got older, they were more aware of the possibilities. There are a lot of toys out there. It became this huge thing.” Last Christmas, she watched with dismay and irritation as her boys tore through presents they’d begged to have for weeks, with barely a meaningful glance toward any one of them.

You Are What You Buy

Many experts believe that children are particularly susceptible to the seductive marketing message – that happiness, among other things, can be bought. In some European countries, advertising to children is prohibited during certain hours or, as in Sweden and Norway, banned completely for children under 12. Meanwhile, in the U.S., according to one marketing critic, broadcasters have been targeting 1-year-olds since the late ‘90s. This could be why at least one designer of simpler holidays, Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Christmas, recommends turning off the TV for the entire month of December.

Buddenberg’s family took their own tack to stop letting materialism rule the holiday. “Our girls got into the ‘gimme-gimme’ mode,” she says. “And we were tired and crabby and in debt.” Her family refigured their approach to Christmas, limiting the number of gifts on each girl’s wish list to three items, and ending all talk of presents (“except for what you are going to give to others”) after Thanksgiving. Her family also began choosing a charity to give to every year. “It really revolutionized the holiday for us, and got us out of that ‘buy-buy-buy’ frame of mind,” she says.

Less Presents, More Fun

More and more families are making similar decisions, either out of intentional desire to celebrate a more meaningful holiday – or out of pure, desperate efforts at self-preservation. “I was really hating this time of year,” says a Brooklyn mother, Helena Thompson, who has drastically scaled back, along with her entire extended family. “We don’t do presents for adults, just for kids, and we try to keep it simple even for them. Instead of gifts for adults, we all bring something for the meal. It ends up being really nice.”

Some families are still working at it. “Part of me would love to stop doing presents altogether,” says Upper West Sider Katharine Seton. “I look at all the plastic junk that gets sold, and I think about where it’s going to be 50 years from now. I wonder if that’s such a great gift for this young generation.” But, she admits, it’s hard to completely stop. “We’ve cut back a lot.”

The Real Meaning

However each family decides to celebrate – cutting back or not – most people agree that, ideally, holidays are about being with loved ones. Ultimately, beyond the presents or in addition to them, that seems to be the most important gift most people want to give to their children.

Buddenberg supports this idea. “What they’re going to remember,” she says, “is, ‘Did we spend time together? Did we see our friends? Did we see our grandparents?’ The neat thing is, these memories last your whole life long. The toys break or they’re gone, but the intangibles really last. If that’s what matters, that’s where you should be putting your time and energy.”



Simplify Your Christmas, by Elaine St. James, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1998. This book offers 100 strategies, including “Stop Being a Perfectionist” and “Say No to Elmo.”

Unplug the Christmas Machine, by Jo Robinson and Jean Staehili, Perennial Currents, 1991. After 13 printings, this quick read has become a definitive guide to making holidays more spiritual and less stressful.

Hundred Dollar Holiday, by Bill McKibben, Simon & Schuster, 1998. Arguing that it is possible to return to a simpler, more joyful holiday, McKibben makes the case for spending only $100. Can it be done? He offers tips and suggestions for giving more meaningful, less expensive gifts.

Who’s Raising Your Child? by Laura Buddenberg and Kathleen M. McGee, Boys Town Press, 2004. A hard look at the effects of a materialistic culture on children’s development, with tips for raising children who “care less about things and more about people.”

Larissa Phillips is a food writer and former editor of New York Family.