Despite recession, parents vow to fill kids' Christmas stockings

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A01

With the tough times and a son in college, Anthony Jackson says he cannot possibly afford the kind of Christmas his family once had, with gifts piled high in the den of his Petworth home. But then again, he can't imagine disappointing his youngest children, either.

"I'm looking at basics: shoes, underclothes, T-shirts," said his wife, Elaine, as they strolled around the Mall at Prince Georges.

Not Jackson. He was thinking electronics. One $170 PSP game system for his youngest son. One $170 Nintendo DSi system for his daughter. "But one game each," he said, noting that that's much less than in the flush days, when he might have bought four or five.

So go the inevitable compromises and conflicts of the holiday as many parents strive to insulate their children from the fallout of the worst recession in decades.

"You want to give your children things; you want your children to be happy, even if you have to pay the price later," said Jackson, a government worker and father of four, who remembers when his paycheck seemed to stretch further and when fewer friends and neighbors were hurting financially.

In these final shopping days, many parents are reconciling their practical concerns with a deep desire to see delight in their children's faces Christmas morning. Spending on gifts is down, but that does not always mean children will feel the difference.

"In hard times, parents try even harder," said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University who studies childhood. He said that the impulse to shield children from family financial difficulties goes back many generations. "During the Great Depression, parents would do anything to keep their kids from feeling the hardship," he said.

This bears out in what Marshal Cohen, the chief retail analyst for NPD Group, a market research firm, sees happening in stores. Early indicators show that toys are faring a little better than most retail categories, he said, and in NPD's surveys, "parents absolutely, yes, have said that, yes, they will forgo or significantly reduce purchasing for the significant other in the family to make sure the kids do not get cutbacks."

'The kids come first'

This includes Kimberly Simmons-Griffin, 39, a Mount Rainier contract manager who made spending cuts, but not for her children. Her teen will get her first "real" purse, a $200 Coach bag. Her 4-year-old twins will get their toys, most of them costing less than $30: Transformers and trucks for one, doll babies and princess dress-up clothes for the other.

"The shopping I usually do for me, I cut back on that," she said. "Everything went to the kids this year. . . . You don't want your kids to suffer. These burdens are ours, not our children's."

Pamela Logan, 61, who lives in Southeast Washington, emerged from a Target store with gifts for her four grandchildren: a Candy Land game, slippers, a bathrobe. Her two grown children will get less this year, she said, because "the kids come first."

In many families, children have learned a little -- or a lot -- about the country's economic woes, including the housing bust and high unemployment rate. But many parents hope to make the holiday season a time apart from these difficult truths.

In Gaithersburg, Tania Ramirez, 34, said she will not tell her children what she fears most: that this may be the last Christmas in the family's beloved townhouse.

Ramirez and her husband have not been able to make full payments on two high-interest mortgage loans since his construction-industry work hours were cut by more than half. They have fallen behind on their heating bill. The home they bought five years ago for $243,000 would sell for about half that, she said.

Still, as Christmas approaches, the mother of five focuses on the family's traditions. Her children, ages 13, 11, 9, 7 and 2, have made wish lists and written letters to Santa, saying, "I know other kids don't believe in you, Santa, but we believe in you."

Ramirez said she is grateful for donated gifts from a family-support program at her local elementary school, Linkages to Learning, but she still hopes to afford a few others.

One child asked for an iPod, which is not possible. Another asked for a $140 Barbie house. She learned they were on sale at a store for less than $40 on Black Friday, but they were sold out by the time she got there. Now, she has her eye on a $32 playhouse, an art set and a used PSP game.

"I'm waiting," she said. "Hoping. This week, we have to pay bills."

Still, Ramirez tells her children that the holiday is about more than gifts. "I try to teach them the most important part of the holidays is that we're together as a family," she said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. "I tell them that Santa will bring them something," even if it isn't exactly what they asked for.

The gift of memories

Overall, holiday gift-buying is down this year, with average adult spending at $507, compared with $534 last year and $578 in 2007, according to the National Retail Federation.

Christmas and its traditions allow parents to try to create idyllic memories for their children, said Mintz, the professor. "I think the wonder and innocent joy have become that much more important to people as they have become more cynical about the economy, about companies, about politics," he said. "It's a response to the alienation they feel."

It's also about the pleasure of giving.

Delvesia Hamilton, 26, a mother of four in Clarksburg who works in retail, said she and her husband budget $1,500 for toys and $800 for clothes for their kids.

The children are so excited about the holiday that every morning begins with, "Is it Christmas yet?" This year, the couple's only cut was on how much to spend on each other: $60, rather than several hundred.

"Christmas is really more about the kids," Hamilton said. "We're adults now, and our parents spent the money for us at Christmas."

If anyone has an illuminating perspective on the season of want and giving, it might be Anthony Jackson, 56, who could not give up the idea of buying game systems for his youngest children.

Jackson recently played Santa at a District elementary school and recalled that a girl of 8 or 9 told him: "You know, Santa, I didn't get anything at all last year."

Even so, the girl asked for a gift for her mother and a computer for her sister.

Another child, a kindergartner, talked to him about her wishes and then handed him a note. Only later did he read it. Along with a bike and a doll and a stuffed bear, she wished for things far beyond a child's grasp:

"That we won't loose [sic] our house, and we will be safe."

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