Most of the time, I try hard to ignore advertising, but at this time of year, that's not easy to do. With Christmas less than a week away, retailers saturate the media with pitches for “the perfect gift for that special someone.” You can't escape it.
Over the course of the holiday season, I keep a mental list of the ads that take the Christmas spirit to new extremes.
For example, there's an ad for a furniture store that suggests, “This year, decorate for the holidays with leather.” It goes on to list the price for a new sofa, love seat, and ottoman. Apparently, just putting up a tree is no longer enough to deck the halls.
The ad that really says “Peace on Earth,” though, is the one for the adult superstore. Playing the tune “Santa Baby” in the background, this commercial walks the consumer through a steamy scenario: “Has the spark gone out of your relationship with old St. Nick? Why not create Christmas magic with a gift of lingerie?”
It's odd and really uncomfortable to think about shopping at an adult superstore to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus.
Of course, most of the ads are directed at children, designed to reach parent-consumers via their offspring's relentless begging and pleading.
When I see these ads, I'm glad my children are growing older and I'm no longer buying gifts for preschoolers. The choices are intimidating.
On the one hand, there are computer systems for small children that promote learning and fun. They introduce technology to teach phonics, math, and geography, yet they make education feel more like play.
But some of the technology that's out there seems less educational and more what's the term I'm looking for? self-absorbed.
Exhibit: The device that puts a camera on top of your television set and transmits images of your child onto the TV screen. (Some savvy toy inventors are going to make lots of money this season because they realized children love to look at themselves on security cameras).
It's sad to imagine a 4-year-old standing in front of the TV entertaining himself with images of… himself. Then again, you could buy one of those “Happy Bunny” T-shirts to go with this gift that says, “It's all about me. Deal with it.”
When they were little, it was easy to delight my children on Christmas morning simply by wrapping a few coloring books and a new package of crayons. In addition to a stocking filled with candy canes and a toothbrush (Santa was always into dental hygiene), everyone got a pair of pajamas, a doll or a truck and a few books.
Generating an enthusiastic response gets harder as they get older, thanks in part to the expectations retailers create.
By the looks of the advertisements, Christmas is not just a time for giving, it's a time for giving big, expensive electronics and gobs of cool gifts that scatter all over the living room floor. I find myself defensively reminding my children, “Even Jesus got only three presents, you know.”
With all the options out there for gift giving, I realized this year, for the first time, that I don't know for sure what my children might like.
No, wait. Not all my children. Amy is just 8, so she's been telling me what she wants for Christmas since about Labor Day. The other three haven't given many clues about what they hope to find under the tree.
My uncertainty prompted me to do something I've never done before: I encouraged them to make Christmas lists. It's contrary to my belief that a gift is not something one orders like food in a restaurant, but I was stymied.
Unfortunately, the lists didn't give me the hoped-for guidance. Jimmy wrote down a few items I probably won't buy. (I'm protesting the collection of yet more Yu-Gi-Oh cards on the belief that enough is enough.)
Katie's list says “books.” No details.
Betsy's list says “anything.” Either she'll really be happy with whatever she receives or she wants so many different items there's no point in listing them all.
Time is running out. With less than a week to go, neither their lists nor the incessant media advertisements have inspired me to make the dreaded trip to the shopping mall, and the idea of simply wandering around until something hits me sounds both expensive and exhausting.
So, rather than look outside my home for ideas, I do the one thing that always inspires me to think about my children.
I fold laundry.
Standing in the kitchen, I stack their T-shirts, socks, and gym shorts in four neat piles across the table. I let my mind drift from child to child in the same way their sweatshirts and blue jeans and school uniforms mingle in the basket.
I reflect on their interests and passions.
I remind myself of what I know about their dreams and desires.
I recall things they've mentioned in passing; I think about what's in their hearts.
By the time I finish sorting and folding and ironing their clothes, I have a plan, and I'm ready to head to the store.
All of a sudden, I can't wait for Christmas morning.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)