Holidays celebrated when it gets darker earlier – like Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas – can make people feel part of something larger. Maybe because people love holidays alongside those near and dear and those who may still enjoy being sentimental. Celebrating holidays reminds us that we are part of a group who share our beliefs. But for some, holidays are being part of the collective of scrooges and cynics that barely tolerate the lights, songs, and other festive stuff. More importantly, are those who feel lonely and removed from the collective support system, something that feels highly individualized and yet, perhaps paradoxically, is common during the holidays.
This time of year is when our “belonging” to something larger is paired with highly individualized stories of unique gifts, treasured mementos, and objects symbolizing good and bad things about family, past and present. Here I offer ways that seemingly individualized holiday objects tell us an important collective story about roles and relationships in today’s families, and about social processes that extend beyond any individual family story.
Values Associated with Materialism, Spoiled Kids, and “Good” Parenting are Wrapped Up in Kids’ Gifts
It’s not hard to find buying guides for parents whose children want the latest toys and gadgets. It’s also easy to find online advice columns about how best to give children gifts without spoiling them, giving in to a marketplace filled with inequalities, or damaging our natural world. But what we often escapes our thinking is how social class may influence parents’ gift-giving, and how kids’ well-being can be affected by how they talk with classmates about the presents they received (or did not receive) after winter break.
Sociologist Allison Pugh reminds us that while it’s pretty universal for parents to want to give their kids gifts, sometimes parents give in to their children’s material desires and spend more than they can afford to buy an expensive toy or other object (Pugh calls this symbolic indulgence). Importantly, in these cases, parents are trying to give kids what they need to feel as if they belong. For better or worse, consumer culture powerfully influences parents. But if we only focus on the powerful marketplace, we miss important stories about how parents use holiday gift-giving to help their children fit into a peer culture where status is highly valued and is the currency through which children’s dignity and belonging are fostered. And we may miss how parents from different economic backgrounds vary in how much they can give their kids the gift of “fitting in.” This sociological finding adds complexity to claims about spoiled kids and materialistic parents.
Annually Displaying Cherished Items from Lost Loved Ones Reflects Family Role Expectations
Saving cherished items is a social act, partially because decisions to cherish something is shaped by values and experiences we collect interacting with others, and by our perceptions of others’ expectations surrounding those items. When giving talks about my book The Stuff of Family Life, the most common topic in the Q & A sessions afterward is about whether adult children will cherish objects their aging parents want to give them. Sometimes children’s reluctance to be excited about antique holiday ornaments from beloved grandparents is seen as reluctance to be connected to past family. The adult child may not see the ornaments as “stand-ins” for the grandparents, but parents may see them as substitutes for grandparents rather than symbols. To preserve ornaments is to preserve memories of grandparents; to dispose ornaments is also disposing the persons. Adult children are expected to demonstrate family loyalty by desiring the ornaments. This can be hard when adult children’s values about having too much stuff or beliefs that objects are unnecessary for memories of loved ones are stronger than their values about being dutiful to parents.
Less contentiously, sometimes adult children will save holiday objects from parents who passed away because the parent loved them. An annual display of the holiday objects from deceased parents can honor past family influence on present family. A father’s menorah may be displayed during Hanukkah to remind someone of the father; the holiday is the vehicle for that memory even if it is not explicitly celebrated.
Holiday decorations have biographies. They enter our lives, are participants in life transitions, and get lost, broken, or forgotten. They can serve as mementos, whether old things from a grandparent or new things, they are meant to create an imagined future nostalgia, something I discuss in my research on the preservation of private love letters. This means they are meant to be shared with children so they know the origins of their family story.
To “hand down” a cherished holiday object entails decisions about loyalty, memory, and longevity, not to mention the object’s aesthetic beauty (or lack thereof). So, when next you hear about a baby’s first [insert winter holiday item here], remember it is not just about that object. It’s also about expectations that it may be saved for when that “baby” leaves home and needs to figure out whether to cherish or dispose of it, which may require negotiating with others’ expectations about the preservation of those memories in physical form.
Object-Centered Holiday Rituals Help Families Find Stability in a Time of Uncertainty
We live in a time of perceived uncertainty. Our everyday lives are moving fast, news headlines showcase political and economic turmoil, and our family structures are changing. Whether because of family border separations, poverty-inflicted adverse childhood experiences, or estrangement, people from varied political perspectives perceive the family and social life as more precarious than ever.
At the same time, we love rituals that offer stability. We live, however, in a time that historian Elizabeth Pleck describes as post-sentimental – a reaction, to over-sentimentalization of holidays and the blues that sometimes accompany them. There is also a desire to be more inclusive about what holidays and rituals may be desirable and best represent the diversity of families who are celebrating. The rituals of gift-giving, displaying or using special objects that appear only during holidays, and expanding the repertoire of “acceptable” holiday objects and their use, all strengthen the claim that we seek rituals to clarify and stabilize our lives. This search for stability can appear via use of old objects symbolizing long-held traditions as well as via new and innovative objects that create new traditions that more accurately tell the story of the varied ways that family life takes place today. In both cases, the objects serve as tools for rituals that provide glue in a climate where stable family life can seem fragile.
How Is This About More Than Just My Family?
Of course, many other ways can symbolize family roles and relationships as they manifest during holiday times, including whether digital gifts are as “real” as physical ones wrapped in shiny paper, whether some gifts violate norms about privacy (are underpants too personal a gift from my in-laws?), or how holiday décor, like any display in the domestic realm, calls to mind gendered division of household labor (do women decorate indoors and men hang the lights outside ?). I am sure you can think of objects in your family that carry deeper meanings this time of year.
Here I showcased a few ways to think about individualized experiences with holiday objects – dilemmas about spending and spoiling, attachment to relatives with or without retaining their possessions, and use of objects in holiday rituals. Holding a holiday candle is never just about the candle. It also is never just about the family that only uses it during the holidays. The candle and the person holding it are about collective topics larger than any of us or our families: the marketplace where candles are made; the collective belief system that the candle represents, the light of someone no longer alive, and the tendency to value rituals as a form of social “glue” in times of uncertainty and perceived loss of social connectedness. Holidays remind us that our family stories are both private and public. Our unique gifts tell a collective story about today’s families.