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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 29, 2002

Christmas without overkill

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

When John Rosemond's two children were young, each got a copy of the Sears wish book. They would thumb through the slick, glossy pages, circling whatever struck their little fancy and "we'd go out and buy it," recalls the nationally syndicated parenting expert.

Jada Fowler, 6, from Grace Christian Academy, shows her delight over the idea of another Christmas overloaded with toys.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

He remembers vividly when he and his wife, Willie, realized the kids had hit Christmas gift overload.

"It was obscene," he said from his home in North Carolina. "There wasn't room in the living room to move because under the tree was this glut, this cornucopia (of gifts)."

He watched his children turn into automatons, unwrapping one present, saying something perfunctory like, "Oh, yeah, that's kinda cool," putting it aside and then reaching their hand out for the next gift.

"That was the end of it," he said, "when we realized they were addicted to material things but were ungrateful because they were getting so much."

He ended that quickly, and even refuses to spoil the grandchildren with presents. This year, for example, they're all getting fleece pullovers, he said. ("Very nice ones, from Patagonia," added Willie.) Nothing else.

They'd rather be remembered as the grandparents who do stuff with the grandchildren — taking them places, reading them books, sending them unsolicited mail — than as open wallets.

How to avoid the holiday 'gimmes'

Tips for avoiding the holiday gimmes, from the authors of "Yes, You Can! Raise Financially Aware Kids," including Dr. Sheelagh Manheim:

• Give children the chance to earn their own holiday spending money. That curbs impulse buying.

• Do the family holiday budget together, and let keiki help determine the amount spent for gifts, outings and special treats.

• Have them make a wish list of five items, then have them look through various catalogs and stores, marking the list with the cost and where the item can be found. This teaches comparison shopping.

• Include your children in holiday community service projects: They can donate old toys, sing to the elderly, make cookies for the neighbors. This teaches them the real joy of giving.

This year, an International Mass Retail Association survey reports, the average holiday shopper is expected to spend about $863 on gifts. People 35 to 44 years old often spend the most. But when does the haul go past the point of a creating a magical Christmas and head into the territory of overdoing it?

"When the material giving overshadows any semblance of the spiritual meaning of that particular day," answered Rosemond, who is a Christian.

Kuulei Kalahiki, a mother of three who works at Hilo Hattie's, budgets about $200 for each child. That might get her son the Playstation 2 he's asked for, but she had to sit down her daughter to explain that while the air conditioner she wants for her room might fall under the limit, she failed to think about the monthly electric bill.

Kalahiki knows her children get more than they need.

"I guess if you really look at it, it's hard for me to put a stop to it, to just spend for one gift for the kids," she said. "I see something and think, 'Oh, he wants this.' Is it more than what they really need?"

It wasn't hard for Lisa Fowler of Pearl City Peninsula Naval Housing to put a stop to her excess after witnessing Christmas overload two years ago. Her daughter, Jada (now a 6-year-old first-grader at Grace Christian Academy), faced a tree with an outrageous number of gifts.

"I bombarded her with presents," Fowler recalls, obviously ashamed. "Other kids don't even have a meal, and my child has enough toys for three kids."

As Jada got that glazed look on her face that too many gifts can elicit, Fowler and her husband hurriedly snuck some back and put them away.

"That's bad, when you have such an overflow you can hold things to next Christmas," she said.

Fowler already knows she's not going to make that mistake with Jada's little brother, Malcolm, 9 months, who is facing his first Christmas. But when the now-stay-at-home mom looks at why she overdid it in the first place, Fowler knows the thought wasn't giving, but compensating.

How to cut back on Christmas overload

Was last Christmas overwhelming? Do you plan to cut back on gifts to make each more essential and meaningful? Here are some tips for making the transition, from Hanahau'oli School headmaster Bob Peters.

• Plan in your mind how Christmas morning should look.

• Ask your family if they noticed how it was last year. Did it feel rushed? Did they have enough time to play with the new toys? Did they even remember what they got, who gave them what or what anyone else received? If any of these answers is "no," perhaps you should curtail the "wild, raging opening of gifts," he said.

• Approach the family and say, "I think it's time we've fixed this. I have these ideas on how to fix it. Do you have any others?"

• Settle on a plan (number of gifts, price limit, how the distributed, timing, etc). Then say, "Let's see how it works and talk about it afterwards."

• Orchestrate the distribution and opening of gifts. One person hands out gifts, and everyone watches the proceedings.

• Stretch it out over time. Take days if there are too many to enjoy sufficiently in one sitting.

"Way in the back of my head, I'm thinking, 'I'm not home all day. She deserves to have all these things because I'm working,' " Fowler said.

Rosemond knows that's a common pitfall: "We were misled by ourselves and a certain amount of cultural influence into believing that's how you demonstrate your love. The one time of year you don't want a child disappointed, it's Christmas time. ... Unfortunately, caring in America has become associated with material things."

There are better ways to show you care, he said, including the old "reach-out-and-touch-somebody kind of thing," Rosemond said.

"Christmas is about love," agrees Fowler.

Bob Peters, the headmaster of Hanahau'oli School who wrote his Ph.D dissertation on how to make holiday celebrations in school meaningful, said the ritual for distributing gifts also has a bearing on overload. In his house, one person hands out gifts, and no second gift is opened until someone in the room has been thanked.

"That seemed to take pressure off of rushing through gifts," he said, admitting it takes more time but makes Christmas last longer — and helps children appreciate what they're given. "Is there anything worse than ripping paper and moving on to the next thing?"

He and his wife, Pat, a former teacher, try to cut back on the number of gifts, too: "In our family, we always identify the one-to-three gifts from Santa, the others from particular individuals, including us," he said. "That gives you a manageable number. Santa gifts were top-priority items, and the number depended on size, cost and what was reasonable.

"Our goal has always been that Christmas would never control us, that we'd have some control over Christmas," he said.

Rosemond recalls the year he and his wife decided to skip present overload and instead took the children, then 12 and 15, on a trip.

"We decided to take them to historic Williamsburg, Va., to spend Christmas Day and have a colonial Christmas," he recalls. "When the kids heard we were going to do this, they said, 'Oh come on, you've got to be kidding! Why don't you just put coal in our stockings?' "

During the entire drive, they decided to pay back their hapless parents by remarking upon everything they passed, saying things like, "Oh look, there's a colonial pine tree! There's a colonial squirrel! An antique patch of grass!" — "just mocking the entire thing," Rosemond remembers.

He and Willie simply popped in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" book on tape and steadily ignored them, though he does today say with a laugh that "they were very, very creative with their mocking."

Of course you know how this story ends. After a simple holiday in the spirit of their American predecessors, a nice meal at a little inn and opening just a few presents with a TV set turned to a Christian broadcast serving as their tree, the two told their parents on the way back that it was the "most fun Christmas we ever had."

Rosemond is glad he broke the cycle. "Unfortunately, caring in America has become associated with material things," he said. "And Christmas is the epitome of that whole attitude."