“With the count-down to Christmas already begun, I am getting more and more worn down by my 14 year old son J’s demands for expensive presents that I cannot afford. He wants trainers and a mountain bike that come to over three hundred pounds let alone smaller things. I have told him that as a freelancer I cannot spend that kind of money even if I wanted to - and I’m not sure that I do - but it makes no difference.”
Christmas is a difficult time for many people. Regardless of Christian religious beliefs or lack of them, it can be a burden to have a celebratory family day on which people are supposed to be happy and enjoy giving or receiving presents. Happiness does not come to order and nor does the wish to give or receive presents. The fact that presents cost money (as well as planning and shopping time) complicates the issue further.
For some children, celebrating the birth of a special holy baby brings problems of rivalry. Infant and junior school teachers can give examples from school nativity scenes where the doll standing for the baby Jesus is ` over-lovingly’ squeezed almost to breaking point. Some children can find their own birthdays hard enough. They wonder how wanted they were or are; how much they are valued really-aside from the words. These fears about emotional value can be transferred to economic value. Whose present is the most expensive? Who is the most valued of all? At Christmas, these rivalrous feelings are exacerbated. “At least my birthday is my own day”, said 12-year-old Sean, “But when it is Christmas I hear what everyone in my class gets”. So at Christmas children face seeing the material (and emotional) discrepancies in what their parents offer.
Changes in fashions over what are the most covetable material presents are affected by wider social changes. Right now, trainers and mountain bikes are particularly popular and it is likely that such interest in sporting regalia and fitness (as reflected in films too) is intensifying at a time when the fitness of the human body is threatened comprehensively by the spread of the HIV virus. However, individual psychological factors can override such external influence.
Ms Y does not mention J’s father. Like birthdays, Christmas often stirs up thoughts about parentage. Worries about the lack or loss of a parent can easily be turned into economic demands in the same way that bereaved relatives displace their grief and grievance on to a Will. Spending lots of time arguing about how much money you have or do not have is therefore usually counter-productive. Children will ask for whatever is given peer value. It is only when parents feel disturbed or guilty that they cannot or do not want to fulfil the demand that a space is created for argument.
Where parents are having financial problems this is easier said than done. John, aged 13, as the economic confidante of his single mother, knew the amount of every household item and bill. Worry and anger about the demand to be a little husband then expressed itself in relentless economic demands. Ms Y works as a freelancer and her salary is therefore variable. Is this disturbing for J.? A family problem can act like an irresistible magnet in the same way that is hard to resist touching a loose tooth. In contrast, Jenny, aged 11, knew her parents could afford expensive presents. Highly successful after poor childhoods they felt rivalrous over their daughter’s affluent childhood. “In family therapy, I realised I could not bear her having a bike at 11 when I had longed for one all through childhood and never got one”, said her father.
In contrast, some children are uniquely vulnerable to peer pressure when they feel there is something wrong with them. Having the same outside things as everyone else can carry the hope that they are similar on the inside. Fear of difference can fuel the power of cult toys. Even if we remove the issue of cult toys, the sight of the shops decked out like Aladdin’s caves can stir longings, greed and avarice. If we don’t get drawn into either being Scrooges or having ever flowing purses and being unable to say “no” we are more able to enjoy the day. If those problems persist throughout the year help might be needed.