Second-Hand Holidays: Why Our Kids Aren’t Getting New Stuff for Christmas

Second-Hand Holidays: Why Our Kids Aren’t Getting New Stuff for Christmas

There’s something about the prospect of getting new stuff that causes kids to go a little nuts around the holiday season. I’ve heard “You know what I want for Christmas…?!” approximately a thousand times since Halloween. And the answer to that question is not a single, simple item. Heavens, no. Long gone are the days when kids sent a hand-written letter to Santa asking for a jump rope. Kids are now making online “Christmas wish lists” on par with wedding registries, and plenty of parents are boldly crowdsourcing holiday shopping money “for the kids!”

We’re kind of over it.

Here are five reasons why my husband and I – despite loving the holiday season and having plenty of money available to spend on our little angles –  have all but nixed Christmas presents in our household:

Reason One: Our Planet and Our Future

We already send an appalling amount of trash to the landfill each year, and almost every fun new thing we have manufactured and packaged and shipped around the world contributes to the problem. In fact, approximately 40% of the plastic we produce globally is just single-use packaging. The consumer waste situation that we are going to be leaving to our kids and grandkids is pretty horrific as it is, so we’re trying hard not to make it worse any faster than necessary.

I’m not saying we never buy new things. I am saying we do so with an awareness of what it is costing the planet and future generations, and we don’t do it just because the seasons change.

Garbage production aside, the amount of money that we as a human race spend on Christmas (and the amount of debt we take out to finance our spending) is staggering. Our total holiday spending hits well over a trillion dollars worldwide, with those of us in the USA spending close to half of that total. Now crunch some numbers with the fun fact that 44% of US shoppers will carry $1,000 in debt or more into the new year because of that holiday spending. 5% will carry $5,000 or more.

This whole situation is embarrassingly unnecessary, unhealthy, and unsustainable.

Reason Two: The Toy Drive Paradox

I’m not trying to pick on toy drives. I absolutely realize that these things are well-intentioned in their quest to prevent children from being sad because they have no gifts to open on Christmas Day.

But have we really stopped to think about why a child who doesn’t have presents to open on Christmas morning might feel sad about that fact? Really – what’s wrong with no presents?

Presents don’t create any lasting happiness. They don’t fix any major problems. They can’t substitute for a healthy human relationship. Charitably donated presents are still subject to all the same waste-related problems discussed in Reason One. So what’s the problem with not having any?

Maybe the problem is that we’ve taught our children to need them. We’ve created a cultural adoration of things and let it morph into a unabated frenzy during the holidays – a tradition that has come to have nothing to do with celebrating Christmas everything to do with getting new things. We’ve subsequently made presents into a right and a need instead of a want for our children.

And because the kids whose parents have plenty of money need to get presents to properly enjoy Christmas, the kids with less resources must need them too…right? Right?!

Whether we say it out loud or not, our actions tell each other and our children that if there is not a pile of presents under someone’s tree come the morning of December 25th, those people should feel ashamed about that and we should all feel bad for them.*

You guys, the solution to the hardships in the world will never be to buy more toys. That can only reinforce the message that kids should be unhappy if there are no presents on Christmas day (or their birthday, or for whatever event) and probably increases the likelihood of them turning into adults who put inappropriate value on their things.

The solution is to teach kids that it was never about presents at all.

Which brings us to…

Reason Three: The Actual Meaning of the Holiday

Shockingly, the original point of Christmas was not clearance sales or peppermint-flavored drinks. Skip on to Reason Four if you’re uncomfortable with this topic – no hard feelings.

Still with us? Lovely! Let’s go ahead and poach the definition of Christmas straight from Wikipedia: “Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave.”

Holy moly! No mention of presents anywhere in that informative little paragraph!

In fact, Wikipedia goes on to list the following non-gift customs associated with Christmas: “…completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, viewing a Nativity play, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, pulling Christmas crackers, and the display of various Christmas decorations…”

So many options! But most of that list doesn’t sound like our current observance of the Christmas season, does it? Maybe the part about cards and decorations, assuming they don’t feature anything more overtly religious than snowflakes.

Dave Barry wisely observed that this whole December 25th thing might be better called  “Atheist Children Get Presents Day” which meshes nicely with our modern societal values of offending the least possible amount of people while also boosting retail sales. Alas, my particular family still has the audacity to be teaching our kids about the original meanings behind the holidays we celebrate, Christmas included.

But even if you could care less about holiday origins and historical customs, you can probably get on board with…

Reason Four: Sticking it to the Man

Part of me is still a rebellious teenager who genuinely believes that my actions can affect the Fat Cats at the top of the economic food chain.

If you keep on reading the Wikipedia article about Christmas, you’ll get to this: “Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.”

And there you have it. The advertisers know how to get you to buy stuff by preying on your insecurity and discontent. They know how to make you feel guilty if you don’t buy stuff. And they are spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to figure out how to target you and your wallet. Flattering, eh?

Don’t fall for it.

Rage against the machine by trying something different: A year where everyone agrees to homemade gifts. A year where the only “present” is a little vacation for the whole family to somewhere new. A year where instead of buying gifts for each other you all pool money for a charity. Or whatever it is that will get you out of that mindset of vapid consumerism where the advertisers want you trapped.

For us, this year, that means shopping only at second-hand stores for our kids. And that brings us to…

Reason Five: Second Hand Stores are Awesome

We try to adhere to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra as much as possible, and shopping second-hand fits nicely into that philosophy.

Some of our best purchases have been second-hand, including my $65 wedding dress. Most of the stuff we got for our newborn baby last year was second-hand as well.

Bonus: Many of the your local second-hand stores probably give a good portion of their proceeds to charitable causes. Goodwill is an obvious example, but we also have second-hand stores that support Habitat for Humanity and a local women’s shelter just a short drive away from us. Your money may be making a much bigger difference at some of these places than you realize.

So How Do We Celebrate Christmas?

By this point you might be thinking that we sit around all month with no decorations and no presents – like Whoville after the Grinch rode through – lecturing our deprived kids about the Nativity Fast… but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We LOVE Christmastime!

We keep decor simple, mostly because we don’t like cleaning or storing things that clutter up our house. We have a tree (see the banner photo – that’s a legit homemade Ninja Turtle ornament there). Stockings are hung by the chimney with care. We have a plush Nativity set that can withstand being flung about and chewed on by a toddler (see photo, below – this thing was made by my grandmother in the ’90s which makes it doubly awesome).

plush nativity set

We light a lot of candles that are scented like Balsam & Cedar and Frosted Mango, whatever that is. We have a fire in the hearth almost every night. We make apple cider and hot cocoa and bake pumpkin bread and sugar cookies and things with lots of ginger.

We do a daily advent calendar (It’s another Nativity scene where animals and stars and angels get added every day – reusable year-to-year because it’s all cloth and velcro) and we do an advent wreath at dinner time (with a short reading each night). We tell the story of the real Saint Nick.

These things are fun for the kids and keep the meaning of the holiday on their minds without beating them over the head with it.

How Much Are We Spending on the Kids?

We will do a small present exchange on Christmas morning. None of the kids’ gifts will be new. We did our shopping for them last week entirely at second-hand stores and the grand total was $32, including ribbon and wrapping paper.

C is getting old enough that he also wants cash to spend on his own, and so he might get a $10 bill too if Santa is feeling especially generous. (Normally the only way C can get cash from us is by doing chores or getting good grades on his report card.) So let’s say our boys’ gifts cost us $42 total.

Contrast this with the average spending parents do at Christmas, which is somewhere between $300 and $500 per child (depending which study you read). I’m willing to bet that my peer group spends more than that on their kids’ Christmas presents, although I can’t find any data specific to our demographic.

A Quick Note on Other Winter Holidays

We want our kids to be aware that Christmas is not the only winter holiday in the world.

Conveniently for us, some of our best friends are Jewish. This has allowed us to introduce Hanukkah to our boys in a completely authentic and fun way… and it has the bonus of re-emphasizing our point of “this season is not just about you and your Christmas presents.”

small menorah and Hanukah prayer sheets

We also try to make a fun deal out of New Year’s, which (at least for now) is less about buying stuff and more about getting together with loved ones.

*An additional thought on the toy drive paradox: If you are looking for a way to make a positive and lasting difference in a child’s life, reach out to local organizations supporting families in need and ask where you can put your money or volunteer your time. Consider supporting an international charity that cares for kids in the developing world (we love this one). If you know any foster parents, check out this post for a great list of ways to support them and their foster kids. If you truly enjoy participating in toy drives, insist that the organizations in charge accept second-hand and/or sustainably produced items.

8 Replies to “Second-Hand Holidays: Why Our Kids Aren’t Getting New Stuff for Christmas”

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Marrianne! I agree. I hope you and your loved ones can have a holiday focused on each other and not on the consumerism part.:)

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