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The 1985 J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. I eagerly awaited its arrival in the mail each Christmas season as a child.

A J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. I eagerly awaited its arrival in the mail each Christmas season as a child.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (I am almost 40, perhaps this entitles me?)…

Is it just me, or is Christmas a little more over the top than it used to be?

For comparison:

I grew up in southern Minnesota in the late 1970s/1980s. My parents were blue-collar manual laborers, and their hard work provided us a comfortable life. We had everything we needed, took road trip vacations, were able to buy some “extras” but nothing luxurious.

In terms of gifts, Christmas was always lovely. I remember one year I had eight presents under the tree! Eight presents! All of my presents were small, probably between $10 and $20 (and the year of eight presents, probably they were all around $10). Typical gifts for me were a Barbie, jewelry, crafts, and clothing.

The highlight of the Christmas shopping season was the arrival of the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog in the mail. I grabbed that thing before anyone else and began circling presents for my wish list. I would spend days with this catalog, literally days.

Every year I circled the same thing: the Barbie Dream House.

Who had this lovely item? Can I come over and play?

Who had this lovely item? Can I come over and play?

I loved Barbies so much. I had probably a dozen Barbies, along with lots of Barbie clothes, a couple of Barbie Corvettes, and (this was the best) a Barbie motorhome hand-me-down from Renee. The motorhome was the most extravagant Barbie accessory I had, and it was used.

I could play for hours with this thing.

I could play for hours with this thing.

The problem with the Barbie Dream House was that it was $99. Yes, $99! I think this was the most expensive item in the catalog. I circled it, even though I knew full well my parents would never spend $99 on one item for me. So unlike this lucky little girl:

The point being, I’m sure my parents could have afforded a Barbie Dream House. But just because their kids wanted a certain gift didn’t mean they were going to get it. And if I got a $99 gift, that meant that my sister and brother also would have to receive a $99 gift, so now we’re talking $300 in the mid-1980s. My parents knew how to say “no”, and I’m grateful for that.

My grandparents, who clearly remembered the Depression, were similarly thrifty. My grandparents showered me with love, attention, and their time, not gifts. Grandpa Zimny gave all the grandkids the same gift every year: $20 plus something a little extra (I usually got a notebook and pencils). Grandma Hager, with 50 grandchildren, obviously could not be as generous. Each Christmas, us grandkids under 18 years old got $5, and also something a little extra (again, usually pencils and paper—I sense a theme. Of course, as a budding writer, pencils and paper was about the best gift ever).

I wonder how many parents today are saying “no” to the big-ticket item (today’s equivalent of the Barbie Dream House). I wonder how many grandparents dare to give their grandchildren only a $20 bill. You can’t buy love, right? Has that idea been lost?

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