After publishing our CCFC Guide to Commercial-Free Holidays, we asked our members for their tips for de-commercializing the holidays. Here are some of our favorites:
Reily H. Urban, San Rafael, CA:
This year, our 3 ½ year old daughters are getting training bicycles, a pack of flashcards to share, several holiday books, and a Dan Zanes CD in each of their stockings. Last year, they got a single, well-designed and well-made, pink Costco play-kitchen, along with two trays full of marvelous wooden food. They each got a special puzzle from Daddy, and a stocking filled with Mandarin oranges from our own tree, plus some fun little trinkets we had even more fun finding. That was it; and that was plenty.
After a long breakfast together in front of the tree on Christmas day, the four of us drive to the beach, fly kites together, and watch the surfers. Many other families walk in the sand and sea foam too, picking up a stray shell, or a water-burnished piece of glass – Christmas treasures we tuck in our pockets. We leave when the sun goes down, wind-burned and chilly, and immensely at peace, then head home for a hot cup of homemade ham and bean soup.
Lisa Miotto, Moline, IL:
Don’t suggest to kids that they should ask Santa for stuff. In fact, don’t even talk about Santa at all, unless prompted by the kids. If my daughter says she wants something, (if it’s something I don’t mind her having) I usually say that if we see it at a garage sale, I’ll buy it for her. I don’t say, “maybe Santa can bring it.” I don’t encourage her to make a list of gifts she wants. I don’t ask her what she wants for Christmas, or tell her what I want. We just don’t talk about the whole gift thing much. She certainly hears about it at her preschool and I can’t stop that, but I don’t initiate any conversations on that topic. She’s only four so I still have lots of influence, but I think it helps a lot.
I started a "science experiment book" and add simple pages to do short experiments with my nearly 4 year old daughter. The first pages are simple hand written charts that say "will it float?" or "will it roll?" or "does it bounce?" on the top, then I write "yes" or "no" and make two columns, then my daughter and I find things around the house: a spoon, a small plastic pig, a hair comb, a wooden toy, etc. We make one row per item - usually 5 or so items on one page. One by one we drop them into a bucket of water. She then uses her marker to mark and "X" in each box if it floated or didn't.
The experiment takes 1 minute; the searching for items takes longer. Usually the first round is so exciting we spend ages looking for enough stuff for rounds two and three. It is fun to make predictions and then have charts afterward - put in a little binder it makes a great little first science book.
Laura, Petaluma, CA:
We love making tree ornaments that are personalized for friends & family that they can enjoy every year. Clay, painted wood, decorating old CD's or recyclables are materials you can use. Making soaps and lotions is fun and easier than you may think, children love doing such a grown up craft ( with supervision), and the recipients really enjoy the handmade potions they would normally buy. Pressed flower petals and leaves for homemade cards (good for soap too)-- little children LOVE collecting these! At 11 years my son never begs me for the "normal" boy toys and he doesn't feel deprived!
Amy Suardi, "Frugal Mama," New York, NY:
These pine cone ornaments are classy, beautiful and almost free. Our family collected pine cones under evergreen trees in a park. We had so much gathering them and finding different sizes and shapes. At home, we tied a string around the stem of each pine cone and attached a Christmas ornament hook. Then we dabbed glue on the "leaves" of the cone: where there was already white bits of dried sap, or on the edges where snow might collect. We sprinkled the glue with white glitter and hung them up to dry. We realized how beautiful they were as is, but it was fun to embellish them.
Nancy Shohet West, Carlisle, MA:
Ultimately, experience has taught me the way to de-commercialize Christmas has less to do with your specific approach to gifts and more to do with your overall approach to the holiday season. What I do is make plenty of time for any activities that aren't toy-, gift- or Santa-related and make a big deal out of those activities. Caroling, pageants, plays, concerts, parties, baking, baking, baking. With kids ages 7 & 11, I've come to realize it is much easier to make Christmas about other things in addition to toys & gifts than it is to convince a kid that toys & gifts don't matter at all. So I let my kids make their wish lists and I buy them little toys. But mostly, we try to make the holiday season be about other things and we don't get all up in arms if one of the kids really wants an ugly plastic gizmo.
Richard Freed, Ph.D., Walnut Creek, CA:
I am a parent of two children, Madeline (age 5) and Elena (16 months). Out of concern that certain gifts can undermine our efforts to limit their exposure to commercialism, my wife and I talk with our close friends and relatives about preferred holiday gifts for our children. (Truthfully, many of our family and close friends already know that this issue is important to us, and most are on board themselves.) Gifts from extended family or friends we know less well pose more of a challenge. My wife and I solve this issue by sneaking a peak at gifts prior to our daughters’ opening them, and donating those we won’t use.
Lisa Ray, Minneapolis, MN:
We make our own Christmas cards. Initially that meant merely putting paint on paper but this year my oldest is responsible for creating the card concept on her own. Making our own cards helps us really think about what message we want to send to our family and friends instead of choosing from predetermined, generic holiday messaging.
Another tradition is a gift that I give to my kids: an ornament signifying something that has happened to them during the year. The ornaments have become a favorite part of the Christmas ritual. The kids look forward to getting out the decorations and reviewing them; we spend half the day retelling the family stories that inspired each ornament.
And to remind us all why we're celebrating Christmas in the first place, the girls have Advent calendars. Each day in December they add one member to the Nativity scene.
Andrea Mills, Stonybrook, NY:
As a parent and an early childhood teacher, I experience how stressful the holidays can be even for the most conscientious families. It is so challenging to live in this world and somehow balance the values we want for our children with the realities of a commercialized childhood culture. Just making this list feels therapeutic! My surviving-the-holiday season “tips” are for both families and people who work with young children:
Establish holiday rituals that don’t involve buying lots of stuff. Baking cookies, doing a craft, reading a special book (my own family read A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote every Christmas Eve in my childhood; it is one of my fondest memories)
If possible, avoid trips to department stores with your kids; out of sight-out of mind…. My sons do a lot better without a visual of all the stuff they should have. The same for toy catalogs. It’s not that I don’t want my children to have nice gifts at the holidays, I just don’t want it to be the sole focus/ don’t want it to define them.
Cathe Olson, Arroyo Grande, CA:
We make our Christmas gifts rather than buying them. We usually have to get some items from craft stores, but we get a lot of supplies from yard sales and thrift shops. Old picture frames, jars, even fabric can be found and transformed into gifts that both kids and adults can make. We also give gifts of homemade food, using locally grown items as much as possible. The planning and working on our gifts gets us much more into the holiday spirit than shopping at crowded box stores ever could and the gifts are so much more meaningful.
Janice St.Clair, Cambridge, MA:
As a professional nanny, I remain "honorary extended family" to all the children I've ever cared for. At the beginning of every winter, I have each child trace a hand as a sizing aid and pick a color from my supply of yarn, and I knit them a pair of mittens.
My current charges enjoy watching me make their mittens, and mittens for other people I love. And many of them have asked me to teach them to knit, and have made scarves for parents.
So if you have a creative hobby that you enjoy, think of how you might share it in gift-giving!
We have been fortunate to participate in other families’ cultural traditions and to share our own. Friends of all religious persuasions attend our annual Chanukah party—not for presents, but for food, songs, rituals, and stories.
Simeen Brown, Salem, MA:
A few years ago my sister decided we should take the money we would spend on gifts for each other, pool it and donate it to a charitable organization. It works out great. In my own family my husband and I have stopped buying gifts as well. My husband finds things at yards sales in the summer for “Santa” to give. We bake goodies together and give these out as our family presents. People now look forward to our treats and have stopped extravagant spending on us. You can’t beat a shopping-free Holiday!
Kelly Thomas, Bloomington, IN:
Get your kids outside in nature as much as possible. Going to the woods/forest/some beaches/nature in general is one of the only activities you can do these days that won't assault you with consumerist propaganda and advertising. Plus, nature is amazing for kids and adults in a variety of ways (increases attention/concentration, soothes, regain a sense of awe and wonder, decrease depression/existential angst, increase spiritual connection (in any religion), etc.) Nature is great for everybody so get out there (just dress for the weather)!
The most important decision my husband and I made regarding our children's limited access to all things material and commercialized was to get rid of our television. Just do it! You won't regret it. Your kids will read more, play more board games, be more creative. They'll do things which are age appropriate and best of all when you ask what they want for the holidays, they won't have been bombarded by thousands of images of useless, plastic junk! Like the old bumper sticker says:
Kill Your Television...
Michele Simon, Oakland, CA:
We are aware of the impact of alcohol advertising on our teenage daughter. While I do drink sometimes when dining out, my husband I have decided not to keep alcohol in the house, so that our daughter sees that it's also normal not to drink. While alcohol seems to be an essential ingredient to most holiday gatherings, we should also consider the impact of the normalizing of drinking has on young people. What a great message to send this holiday season: that despite all the advertising to the contrary, celebrations are just as fun, and even more so, without alcohol.
We do our charitable giving around the holidays—and my daughter always participates in the process. From the time she was about ten, she took over writing down which organizations we’ve selected for donations, and began picking organizations that she wants to give her own money to.
The Smith Family, Elverson, PA:
Every year, our family reads Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" aloud in front of the fire. We begin after Thanksgiving, and finish on Christmas Eve. This is an important family tradition because it reminds us of the true meaning of the Christmas season.
Simplicity. Four gifts - one from Santa, each set of grandparents, and one from Mom and Dad. Made in USA and wood products only. We often source Waldorf products.
One year I made my daughter an advent box. Each day of advent she gets a non-material gift written on a piece of paper. "Today is pajama day", "Let's play a game", "Today we will go downtown to look at the lights", "I will give you a pedicure today", etc. She loves these gifts and it helps me to remember to spend time with her during a time when it is easy to be "too busy".
Laura, San Francisco, CA:
In an attempt to limit commercialism and consumption in general we sent a letter to all grandparents, aunts and uncles before the holidays with our young children's wish lists. We requested clothing, art supplies, books (encouraging the purchase of second-hand items) and museum memberships. We also encouraged "experiential" gifts such gymnastics lessons and outings with family.
We found a great book called “The Spotted Pony” that contains a story for each night of Chanukah. After we light the menorah we read aloud one of the stories. As our children got older they took over the reading.
When asked what they would like for Christmas, our relatives always respond with "I don't need anything." My husband and I always feel obligated to buy them something they will never use just because "It's Christmas." So this year we pooled all the money we would have spent on useless Christmas gifts and instead donated 20 shoeboxes full of toys and hygiene items to needy children around the world. It was a truly uplifting experience, and we plan on making it a tradition in our family. The CCFC has really inspired us!
Sign up with the Direct Marketing Association to opt out of receiving catalogs. The remainder can be cut up into garlands... simple loops or folded chains of gingerbread people traced from a cookie cutter.
We ask friends and relatives to give gifts that are not things. An experience like play tickets, the gift of time like teaching our child a handicraft, a jar or bag of homemade food gift, or it it must be an object, an object lovingly made by the giver is something that can be treasured.
As for how to make holidays magical without the emphasis on getting stuff, we try to focus on treasured events like caroling, making a gingerbread house, seeing the Nutcracker, and giving to those less fortunate.
I love recycling. So I buy from thrift shops and find better quality than from famous catalogue stores. And this year I am limiting my gifts to warm socks and food items--and warm smiles!
Daniela Caruso, Toronto, Ontario, Canada:
My cousin in Italy only arranges for a single gift for their daughter who is under 10-years-old (and not an overly expensive gift, either).