In my recent talking with kids, Scrooge of London seems to have lost a lot of ground as the definitive morality tale about Christmas self-redemption. Instead it’s another miserable misanthrope, the green Grinch of Whoville, who seems to have captured children’s imaginations lately. Perhaps the farfetched hairy Grinch (first depicted by Seuss in 1956) is better able to appeal across cultural boundaries in today’s multicultural America than the strictly British characters Dickens invented in 1843.
Americans in 2016 do not much resemble Londoners from Dickens’ story. Last year I did a study in southern New Jersey (in households that were facing economic struggle and had kids age 6 to 8). Families struggling these days in America come in all colors—their ancestry ranges globally. But there are universals they share in their American lives: devotion to their children, appreciation of family bonds, and an impressive effort to make use of Christmas to celebrate those very values. These kids were just as surrounded by devotion to family and human bonds as any Cratchit child Dickens envisioned. Their families practiced the non-materialist values of Christmas, the kind of values that redeem lost souls—the loving values of human connection that the Cratchits taught Scrooge and the Who’s taught the Grinch.
Out of their meager resources, all the families I met chose to place particular priority on the things in the Christmas ritual that symbolize family. Christmas trees were often put up right after Thanksgiving, and decorating the tree was a family affair. Sets of ornaments, even the star or angel at the top, were sometimes passed around from one household to another, from grandmother to mother, or from in-law to in-law. Proudly hung for all to see on the tree were ornaments made by children. Once decorated, the Christmas tree was a beloved object to everyone in the family. Often, when I asked kids to draw anything they wanted relating to Christmas, they first chose to draw the Christmas tree (not Santa Claus). Only one family, who failed to finish decorating their tree in the depth of grief over a deceased grandmother, did not regard a fully decorated tree as central that year to Christmas. An emphasis on family unity is symbolized by a shared family tree—the children, the parents, and the extended family all had a role in its adornment.
Gifts were another means for families to show relatedness, especially a way to show parental regard for children. Quite a few husbands and wives made a pact that limited funds would be concentrated on their children’s gifts; gifts exchanged between spouses were sacrificed, not kids’ gifts. Children in poor families received only a modest number of presents but what they received made their eyes shine bright Christmas morning, and this is what parents appreciated.
Parents invested significant effort and time in choosing gifts tailored to each child’s unique disposition and interests. In turn, children sensed they had been treated with special care and thought. “Christmas is about loving and caring,” as one child summed it up. Another told me that “even if there were no presents, we would still have family.” Perhaps because a feeling of family love was invested in each gift, children often revealed to me the vicarious pleasure they took in their brothers’ or sisters’ joy at Christmas. Siblings readily shared their playthings with each other. I saw no sign of kids coveting what their brother or sister received.
Extended family also played an intrinsic part in gift giving. In some cases, families organized a “Pollyanna” in advance of Christmas; family members drew from a container the name of another family member, and this was the family member they bought a gift for. The Pollyanna tradition, perhaps born out of economic necessity, nevertheless symbolizes how each person in the network of relatives felt themselves to be part of an overall unity—able to extend generosity to anyone, selected at random, among their kinfolk.
There were differences from family to family. Some went to church on Christmas, others didn’t. Every child and every adult knew about Santa Claus and the entire mythology of elves and flying reindeer at the North Pole, but parents differed on how much they invested in rituals like baking cookies for Santa Claus or exchanging letters with Santa Claus.
Overall, there was one big consistency. Every one of these economically struggling families could have been straight out of Whoville in the sense that love and family connection was the prominent value of Christmas they practiced. Material gifts were a means to show love, especially to children, never a substitute for care not extended.
Seuss implied the Grinch needed to learn that affection and relatedness were what mattered, not Christmas “stuff” which is in itself inconsequential. That is why Christmas cannot be stolen but can only be shared. The families I met in New Jersey last year taught me that when you peel away the trappings of excess materiality, there is an deeper endearment that is inspiring. Our children can be steeped in our attention and affection, and can return the favor with appreciation and mutual warmth—if we don’t make the Grinch’s error of thinking it’s tangible stuff that matters.
Cindy Dell Clark is a founding member of Child’s World America and an anthropologist who studies American children and families. In 2016 she interviewed families qualifying for poverty assistance in Camden County, New Jersey. Her book on American kids and Santa Claus is Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America.