Rule 7: Have a merry Christmas

Ignore the killjoys kicking up a fuss about pester power, toys-as-consumerism and secret paedophiles in Santa suits: Xmas with kids is fun.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Christmas is a great time to be a parent. All those things that may have seemed irritating, naff or downright objectionable in one’s time BC (Before Children) take on a sparkling excitement – Christmas lights, the droning of carols, the festive displays in the shops and the ever-lengthening holiday period.

Even the tricky requirement that you should somehow believe in God becomes easily absorbed in the true purpose of Christmas as expressed by the under-fives: Presents! Sweeties! Parties! Play! We’ve had our tree up since the first weekend in December, and the children come home from nursery with a painted snowman/angel/Santa every day. Christmas may come but once a year; but its entertainment value can be milked for at least six weeks.

The only problem is the bloody killjoys, nibbling away at the edges of the festivities with their fear and moralism. Here are a few examples of festive angst that may come to a parent’s door this Christmas. Like my eldest daughter’s letter to Father Christmas, dictated and posted several weeks ago, this is not an exhaustive list; just exhausting.

Nativity plays and other religious complications

One of the big complaints of the ‘PC gone mad’ brigade in recent years has been that the true Christian message of Christmas has been censored by the orthodoxy of multiculturalism. A recent survey by the Sunday Telegraph of 100 schools found that 36 per cent ‘were staging religion-free Christmas plays or planning no event this winter’, compared with a similar survey in 2004 that found one in seven schools producing no nativity play (1). Apparently, schools performing a traditional nativity play are in a clear minority, against those that choose non-religious shows like Scrooge or Snow White, or put on ‘modern reinterpretations of the Christmas story, with extra characters, new songs and modern themes, such as The Bossy King, Whoops-a-Daisy Angel or The Hoity-Toity Angel’.

For the many parents currently helping their little shepherds/wise men/Marys’n’Josephs to perfect their roles, and forcing themselves not to wince at another nightly monotone of ‘Little Donkey’, rumours that the Christian message is facing obliteration by political correctness may seem to be greatly exaggerated. The paraphenalia of Christmas is as in-your-face as it has ever been, and the Nativity message continues to loom large.

But there is a definite defensiveness about it all. In schools and nurseries, Christmas is formally presented as one of many festivals – my kids come home with Diwali pots and Hanukkah decorations (which have ended up on the Christmas tree), and schools in more ethnically mixed areas than ours really do struggle to get the message right. As a spokesman for a school in Barking, east London, where half of the intake is white British, told the Sunday Telegraph: ‘We are not putting on a play; instead we are having a talk about a Czech winter play. We don’t feel the need to have the Nativity. We are an ethnically diverse school and want to learn about other cultures.’

Learning about other cultures is a fine thing, but why should that stop anybody from celebrating Christmas? It seems that the unease about the Nativity story is really an unease about everything to do with this annual celebration: what we are celebrating, why we are celebrating, and above all, how we are celebrating. This has less to do with multiculturalism than with a general cultural miserabilism, which makes all aspects of Christmas out to be a problem – even the presents!

Christmas shopping

Even when I was a kid, it was fashionable for some to complain that Christmas had become too ‘consumerist’. We never fell for that old adage that all children used to get in their stocking was a walnut and a lump of coal, so why should our children? But in the past it was at least assumed that parents knew how to say ‘no’, that the very existence of tantalising goodies on the shop shelves wasn’t going to send mums and dads into a spiral of depression and debt. Nowadays, parents are all supposed to be victims of ‘pester power’ – unable to say no to our kids, or control our own wallets.

The government-funded counselling service Parentline Plus has a page of its website dedicated to ‘pester power’, which, it notes, is a particular problem at Christmas. We are sagely advised: ‘Although it doesn’t feel like it at times, you as the parent are the most valuable resource for your child and any creative time you spend together is worth more than anything you buy.’ (2) Just imagine the children’s delight when you tell them that Santa has brought no Barbies or Power Rangers – but 10 minutes’ extra with mummy at the weekend!

Parentline Plus tells us: ‘It can feel good to spoil your child with expensive gifts but cost is a great consideration for most parents, as is keeping limitations on how much you treat your children.’ Well, kids might demand all kinds of gifts, but the truth is that parents buy presents for their children because they want to. Spoiling children at Christmas is as much about us as about them: it’s just fun. And even though some children’s stuff costs a lot and you pay a premium for branding, one big difference between now and the olden days is that Stuff In General costs so much less. The anti-shoppers might sigh wistfully over the little girl having a dolly made out of a dried corn cob in Little House in the Big Woods, but these days you can buy dollies for less than dried corn cobs (and Laura Ingalls Wilder was in no doubt that the real dolly was better).

It is notable that those ethical parents who boast to the worthy media about spending no more than a fiver on their families, preferring to concentrate on non-monetary values, are generally people with pretty good incomes, thank you very much. It is those scummy, stupid working-class parents who are presumed to spend more money than they have sense at Christmas, and the reaction against ‘consumerism’ is based on no small amount of snobbery.

The flipside of concerns about pester power is the fear that all this emphasis on Stuff is turning our kids into sordid little consumer-obsessives, whose preoccupation with crazes and brands is played on mercilessly by multinational corporations. Kids certainly do know their brands, and advertising is a commercial enterprise rather than a moral one, which exploits childish dreams for all they are worth. But why should we assume that this is ruining our children now, when it never did before?

Kids have always wanted more stuff, better stuff, the same stuff as their friends; and part of growing up is gradually learning that this is not always possible or even desirable. In more positive, less affluent times, children’s aspirations for ‘More’ fed into their parents’ aspirations for a better life; today, the fact that kids want ‘More’ is seen as a brand new symptom of our greedy, wasteful society. Poor kids – all they thought they were doing was going through the Woolworth’s catalogue.

One final note of Christmas caution – from who else but the insurance companies. In 2004, Halifax General Insurance put out a press release noting that one fifth of parents, ‘bow[ing] down to the pressure to make dreams come true’, had budgeted to spend over £300 on their kids at Christmas. (3) Then comes the nightmare:

‘Against this backdrop of spending sprees, Halifax General Insurance is advising parents not to let the festive spirit cloud their senses and to ensure that provisions are made for keeping presents out of reach, not only from curious children but also from burglars. According to Home Office statistics around 70,000 homes were burgled over the Christmas season last year. Homeowners therefore risk losing a total of more than £36million worth of presents during the festive period.’

We have been warned.

Christmas and ‘The Planet’

Wrapping paper, Christmas trees, conspicuous consumption of every kind… Christmas is surely the environmentalist’s nemesis. Which is why two schools in Pontypridd, South Wales, have reportedly ‘banned’ children from exchanging Christmas cards, asking them instead to donate money that the school can pass on to charity (4). In a letter to parents, the head of the one of the schools explained:

‘As a change of plan this year and to help us get the Eco School Gold Award-Green Flag, we request that pupils don’t bring in Christmas cards to give to each other. Instead they may make them in art lessons. Also, we request that you be so kind to donate £1 (instead of cards) for Oxfam and we will send the money to purchase a goat or mosquito net (for a family in Africa).’

That sounds like a lot of fun. Meanwhile, parents everywhere, who are schooled in green guilt by their kids, will have to work out how to justify putting all that aside to enjoy a traditional, wasteful Christmas. Or they can go for an earnest, ethical Christmas, with a recycled tree (no lights), a nut roast and presents that the family needs rather than wants. Now there’s a dilemma.

Santa and other ‘dangerous strangers’

Before children reach the age of Unbelieving, a trip to see Father Christmas is always magical. That’s if you can find one. Over the past few years, fears about what might go on in the grotto have sent Santa to brightly-lit, well-supervised corners, forbidden to have children on his knee or give them a Christmas kiss. Now Santa volunteers are subjected to checks by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), on the assumption that he could be hiding all manner of perversions under that white beard. So much for the age of innocence.

Santa is not the only Christmas treat to be spoiled by over-the-top child protection measures. Last Christmas, the Manifesto Club released a chilling report detailing how choirs, bell-ringers and children’s parties are forced to dilute their Christmas spirit so that they conform to new vetting procedures, casting a cloud of suspicion over all those well-meaning locals seeking to bring some seasonal cheer (5). One Christmas party organised for local kids by Bristol University made volunteers who had not been CRB-checked wear different coloured T-shirts (white) to those who had been vetted (burgundy), so that ‘those in charge can ensure that there are a mix of those who are referenced and those who aren’t’. Did the T-shirts actually carry the logo ‘Dodgy Character’, I wonder, or was that left for the kids to work out for themselves?

Despite the popularity of digital cameras, you rarely see them at children’s parties any more – what’s the point, when so many organisations have bans on taking photos of any children other than your own. The fear is that parents will decide to circulate them on the internet for some vague and nefarious purpose. The upshot is that we, and our children, end up with very lonely keepsakes of Christmases past. You can imagine them asking, ‘Why was I always in the Nativity play on my own?’

When it all gets too much…

Children are a great joy at Christmas, bringing excitement and delight… but also creating lots of mess and work and sometimes behaving like little sods. What do you do if you’ve just had it with the festivities, and want a bit of a break? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that Parentline ‘is open 24 hours a day throughout the Christmas period’ – what would we do without them, eh? (6)

The more traditional approach of going out and getting pissed might be somewhat more fun, but then you’ve got to get somebody to look after the kids. And that means, according to ABC magazine, the free mag for Essex parents, that you’ll need a ‘babysitting checklist’ containing no fewer than 18 instructions on how to deal with babysitters. My favourite is ‘Show them where the fuse box is and a torch, plus where to turn off the water and gas just in case’ – which rather presumes you know where these things are in the first place.

(This same magazine, by the way, offers us some jolly New Year’s Resolutions ‘for happy, healthy families’, which include ‘Read to your children every day’, ‘Monitor your children’s media’, ‘Become more involved in school and education’, and ‘Provide your child with a smoke-free environment’. Clearly, the fun stops even before the Christmas holidays do.)

When even going down the pub becomes a stressful exercise involving lists and risk assessments, you know something really has changed about Christmas. Fortunately, kids are still kids and people – even parents – still know how to eat, drink, and be merry. If only once a year.

With thanks to Beverley Marshall.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review, and a member of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum. Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) School nativity plays under threat, Sunday Telegraph, 3 December 2007

(2) Tackling pester power, Parentline Plus

(3) ‘Pester power paves way for pricey presents this Christmas’, Halifax press release, 1 December 2004

(4) ‘Scrooge’ school bans children giving Christmas cards, Daily Mail, 14 November 2007

(5) How the child protection industry stole Christmas, Manifesto Club, December 2006

(6) Christmas time survival tips, Parentline Plus

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics