Do you take your values Christmas shopping?
What parent doesn't want to make their children's wishes come true at Christmas, to see their little eyes light up as they tear off the wrapping paper on Christmas morning? But for many parents-and grandparents and other relatives-playing Santa has become an ethical landmine.
For instance, what do you do when your 3-year-old wants a Beetle Borg?
That's just the moral dilemma my sister faced last Christmas. Although the violent Beetle Borg cartoon is on a list of forbidden shows at her house, as early as Thanksgiving her middle child began to insist that he just couldn't live without one of the plastic action figures. So, despite her rather strict rules about appropriate and allowable toys, my sister and her husband tied a bow around a Beetle Borg and put it under the Christmas tree.
"You've got to choose your battles and trust in your kids and yourself," she says, explaining their decision. "You hope that limited exposure to things that go against your values won't affect them as much as the constant exposure to what you do value-that the overall message you give your children, day in and day out, will win over one Beetle Borg."
Teaching countercultural values is a struggle Catholic parents face every day, but the challenge intensifies during the last two months of the year when the media blare to "buy, buy, buy" threatens to drown out the Christian message about the Prince of Peace.
Is it possible for Catholics to maintain the "reason for the season" without being a Grinch? When they go Christmas shopping, do Catholics take their values along with their checkbooks?
Yes, say most U.S. Catholic readers in a recent survey, but it isn't always easy.
Some say they have given up on gift-buying altogether, substituting charitable donations or gift certificates for the latest battery-operated, useless gimmick. Others have compromised by sticking to personal guidelines about how much to spend and by choosing wisely where to whip out their credit cards. Many also try to keep the crass consumerism of contemporary Christmas in check by honoring the religious season of Advent with spiritual or volunteer activities.
Just say no to G.I. Joe
A good number of those who shop for children with impressionable young minds try-like my sister-to do the best they can. Like the Jolly Old Elf, they make their lists and check them twice-to determine whether the gifts are naughty or nice.
One Connecticut mother says she gave in and bought a Nintendo for her son but draws the line at violent games for the system. "Still, the '007' one got past me," she says, referring to a popular James Bond-themed video game.
In light of Littleton, many shoppers shun any gifts that encourage violence. Toy guns topped the list of presents that U.S. Catholic readers said they would refuse to buy. Violent video and computer games, music, and movies also frequently were nixed for going against readers' values.
"Although we cannot completely control everything they are exposed to, we refuse to be coerced by slick ads aimed at young minds into providing our children with toys that perpetuate the normalization of violence in our society," says Paul Scheikle of Van Wert, Ohio.
Linda Wawroski of Chatham, New Jersey says she won't spend her money on "blood-soaked video games and action figures from violent games."
Several respondents cited the feminists' foe, Barbie, as another no-no on their Christmas shopping lists. "Barbie promotes a distorted female body image and reinforces negative stereotypes," explains A. L. Mauler of Lawrence, Kansas. Laura Hart of Winter Park, Florida won't buy any book, video, or music that reflects sexism or the degradation of women.
But even toys that aren't intrinsically evil can become problematic when they're overmarketed, admit many readers. Some savvy shoppers avoid Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, anything emblazoned with a Disney character-or this year's favorite icon, Pokémon-as one reader explains, "because of the hype and commercialism they foster and encourage in children."
Also ethically questionable-for adults or children-are overhyped and overpriced brand names, such as Tommy Hilfiger, or items that idolize overpaid sports celebrities. For the older set, other readers say they refuse to buy alcohol or single-use consumer goods, like "appliances that only make one kind of sandwich."
Are Santa's elves fairly paid?
The conditions under which an item is made also matter to many justice-minded readers. Several said they won't buy from companies known for their unjust labor practices, such as The Gap or Nike. Suzanne Schiml of Dayton, Ohio is on the lookout for the "Made in China" label. "I try not to buy from countries that condone sweat shops or lack civil rights," she says. "I try to find things made in the U.S.A."
In fact, 80 percent of survey respondents say they would pay more for toys and gifts produced in better, more fair working environments. But many noted that it's hard to know what products meet those criteria. "Most times I am unaware of the working environment where the item was made," admits Marge Milanese of Albany, New York, who questions whether boycotts are always helpful. "Sometimes I figure at least the people are making some money."
Despite their ideals, readers admit they sometimes go against their better judgment in selecting gifts, most often to try to please children. "I bought my son a South Park T-shirt," admits Rita Fete of Tallahassee, Florida, "because I wanted him to relate to me better, by showing him I could relate to his 'likes.'" Most of the time, however, Fete buys gifts with spiritual significance.
Other times, people go against their conscience when they are rushed, trying to impress someone, swayed by a child's insistence, or because it's just the easiest thing to do. "It's hard to say no," admits John Mikkelsons of Menomonie, Wisconsin.
Apart from individual gift choices, some readers agree with Charlie Brown that the entire commercialism of Christmas has gotten out of hand. Expensive gifts are not a replacement for love and quality time together, argue several respondents. And going into debt is a sorry way to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus.
"I'm usually tired and disillusioned by the time Christmas day comes," says a Minnesota reader. "I would like to forget about the shopping and just have a family gathering without the gifts."
About half (54 percent) say that the hassle and expense of Christmas shopping has spoiled the spirit of the season for them. But others say the joy of spreading Christmas cheer is worth it. "Shopping is extra work, but I like doing it," says Shirley Schmidt of Blue Grass, Iowa. "Plus, I always try to say a prayer for each person whose gift I am wrapping."
Rather than throw the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater, many people try to find creative ways to give generously of themselves at Christmastime. Seattle resident Mary Galvez's philosophy is typical: "There are creative ways to share the spirit of Christmas that do not have a price tag but are priceless."
It's not about the money
One place to start is by setting a budget. Seventy-six percent of survey respondents say they decide on monetary limitations and, for the most part, stick to them. And 73 percent find that going into debt is an unacceptable way to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Those who agree with some level of debt suggest that it should be an amount that can be paid off in a reasonable time, perhaps three months or so.
"I don't believe it's necessary to go into debt to be generous, but it does take more thought, time, and creativity not to overextend financially," says Colleen Paananen of Lafayette, Colorado. "Perhaps truly being present to those we love is the greater gift. That doesn't cost any money."
But Tanya Firk Klarer of Dallas thinks a little debt to express generosity is OK. "The joy it spreads in me as well as others is worth it to me," she says.
Not surprisingly, those without young children find it easiest to eschew the commercialism of Christmas. "Now that my children are grown, gifts are much less important," says one California respondent. And wisdom often comes with experience.
I have to admit that in the past I bought more than I should have," confesses Betty D'Arcy of Newark Valley, New York. "But I realize now that my grandchildren already have more toys than they can play with and I refuse to support the consumerism mania."
Spiritual preparation, too
U.S. Catholic readers are as helpful as elves with suggestions for ways to keep Christmas gift-giving in the right spiritual perspective. Most ideas center around remembering that Advent is not merely a season for shopping but rather a time of preparation for Christ's coming. "I've become very aware of the contemplative, waiting spirit of Advent," says Fred Eyerman of Denver.
To make time for Advent devotions, Marian LeBlanc of Marion, Massachusetts makes a commitment not to shop on the Sundays before Christmas. Other readers try to have all their presents purchased before Thanksgiving so Advent can be a time of spiritual preparation.
But Judy McCullough of Houston does the opposite: "I begin my shopping, decorating, and baking on Dec. 20-no sooner and no later," she says. "This controls the binges and keeps it simple."
"Pray before shopping" is the simple suggestion from Peggy Kerry of Philadelphia.
Many readers say they try to balance their time spent in stores with efforts for the less fortunate. They buy gifts for "Angel Tree" families, volunteer in homeless shelters, or make donations to charities during the holiday season. One respondent says she matches each gift bought with a contribution to a charity in the same amount. A number of people say they give charitable donations as gifts in their recipient's name.
Other ways to keep the Christ in Christmas include creating homemade gifts or shopping at stores with a conscience. Religious bookstores, catalogues, and magazines, as well as Third World shops, are popular destinations for those wanting to send a message along with their gifts. "I try to buy gifts that promote the faith rather than simply buying material items," says Marsha Wilbanks of West Columbia, Texas. One priest says he limits his gifts to food items made at a local monastery.
Others try to keep down the overall cost of gift-giving by shopping only for children or by limiting the number of presents per person. "I know a family that gives each person only three gifts each," shares Deborah Keenan of Hamburg, New York. "They say that baby Jesus got three gifts and it was good enough for him!"
Julie Maurer of Midland, Michigan suggests giving gift certificates redeemable for your time or services. "Giving time, attention, and patience to our family members is a much better measure of our generosity," she says. "Often, that is more difficult than giving money."
Gifts of time and self also accomplish a goal cited by several survey respondents: to remember the spirit of Christmas all year long. "I believe we should be 'gifting' others every day of the year with our loving presence," says Father John Kuzilla of Kersey, Pennsylvania, who bases his philosophy on the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, "A person is the best gift."
"This zeroes in on the meaning of Christmas, God's gift of Christ to us," Kuzilla says. "So gift wrap yourself for Christmas. People are the greatest gift at Christmastime and throughout the year."