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Don't let lack of green make a blue Christmas

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 27, 2008
— Parents want to give their family a Christmas worthy of a Visa ad.

You know the type: It's one where well-rested parents cram colorful boxes under a giant Norway pine.


There's the new bike! And the Wii! Everyone is happy!


But this Christmas, many local families will have to make different choices. Between a sickly economy, job losses and an uncertain future, the traditional Christmas spending spree seems less likely.


For many parents, the specter of a frugal Christmas is grim.


They imagine miserable kids sitting around a pathetic tree while the Visa family down the street glows with health and goodwill.


But it doesn't have to be that way, and here's why:


"Think about a holiday or Christmas from your childhoods," said Julie Janiak-Fenton, who works with low-income and first-generation college students at UW-Rock County. "You'll probably remember time spent with your family. Now try to remember your top ten presents."


You probably can't, because it wasn't the stuff that mattered.


A frugal and joyful holiday requires two things: Love and time. And it's something that's good for everyone, not just families on a budget.


Yes, but ...

How do I tell my kids that they shouldn't count on the usual bonanza on Christmas morning?


Now is the time to have the conversation, not Dec. 15, when the kids and extended family are in the middle of the season's frenzy.


"It's difficult to talk about creating a budget," said Autumn Behringer, assistant professor of sociology at UW-Rock County. "There's some sense that talking about money is kind of crass."


It's not necessary to share the details with the younger children. They don't have the skills to put it into perspective, and it might scare them or make them feel insecure. For teenagers, a gentle conversation about money might provide them with a mini-education in the financial realities of life.


Remember, too, that changing Christmas expectations isn't all about money; it's about refocusing on what's important.


Here's a secret: All families have different "dynamics." That's a fancy way of saying that family units adhere to an unwritten set of expectations and rules. They can be as simple as "We always go to Grandma's for Thanksgiving" or "Christmas means lots of stuff."


"Dynamics" can also mean established habits.


"The holidays are important season for rituals," explained Autumn Behringer, assistant professor of sociology at UW-Rock County.


Rituals give families continuity over time or generations; they can provide comfort and security.


Now here's the good news: Those rituals don't have to be money-based, Behringer said.


Consider, instead, "idea-based rituals instead of object-based rituals."


What does that mean?


Let go of the actual stuff and embrace the adventure of giving.


For example, decide with your family that all gifts must be under a certain dollar amount or must be homemade. Use your imagination and have some fun:


-- Make your brother a CD of his favorite music instead of buying him one.


-- Draw a family picture for grandma, put it in a construction paper frame—she'll keep it for much longer than the slippers you gave her last year.


-- Make a "Dad" action figure for your real dad. Use a thrift store or garage sale figure. Don't forget the accessories such as television remote, duct tape, brief case, tie, favorite flannel shirt.


New rituals can include events such as the "First Annual Christmas Eve Christmas Light Drive" or Christmas cookie decorating.


Homemade gifts?

Creating a new kind of Christmas requires a "shift in mind set," Janiak-Fenton said.


"It will be harder for parents than the kids," she said. "They want to provide for their children, to show them that they're successful, to show them that they love them."


Sure, children love the thrill of opening presents. But they also love the undivided attention of a well-rested, happy adult.


"Christmas is not about material possessions, it's about time with family," Janiak-Fenton said.


Think of how excited a kid might be if you sat down cheerfully with them and played "Candyland" or "Sorry" or one of those interminable games of "Monopoly."


Then there's sledding, building snow forts in the yard or skating at the ice rink.


It will be hard for parents to imagine that their attention can make up for a pile of presents. But time spent with kids, a few special items under the tree and relaxed and happy parents can make the difference.


"Children will know you love them for 365 days a year, not just on this one day for two hours," Janiak-Fenton said.


It won't be the Visa version of Christmas, it will be something even better—a season that will be remembered long after they've outgrown all of their toys.



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