December 2017

Plain Brown Pinecones are Beautiful, Too: Christmas Presents in Highlights for Children

In dispensing with consumerism at Christmas (and Santa Claus too), Highlights upends traditional gift-giving practices in American families, re-structuring the child-centered celebration of wealth into one focused on gathering as a community.

by Patrick Cox

The December 2006 issue of the popular children’s magazine Highlights for Children begins, as every issue of the magazine has, with a letter from the editor. The editor is Christine French Clark and the letter is titled “Finding Treasures.” Clark writes about the previous December when her two children gave her pinecones they had painted green and sprinkled with glitter. She writes, “The pinecones looked just like miniature Christmas trees.” But this year, Clark tells us, she had the opportunity to read a non-fiction piece in the current issue of Highlights titled “Treasures in a Pinecone.” The article informs readers of the value of pinecones for their seeds, both as food for animals and as the seminal point of future pine trees. Clark concludes that her children “must have seen the beauty in pinecones to want to collect and decorate them,” but she learned from the article, and says she hopes her readers learn as well, “that plain brown pinecones are beautiful, too.”[1]

Clark’s editorial follows the approach taken to represent Christmas in Highlights for Children since the late 1970s. It extols the virtues of simplicity and nature, as well as family, crafting, scientific information, and community. These values, wrapped up in an anti-consumerist logic, fundamentally challenge popular Christmas displays of glitz and glitter. In dispensing with consumerism at Christmas (and Santa Claus too), Highlights upends traditional gift-giving practices in American families, re-structuring the child-centered celebration of wealth into one focused on gathering as a community.

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The cover of the December 1998 issue of Highlights for Children. Note the emphasis on spending time with family and friends, crafting, minimal decorations, and no presents under the tree. Highlights for Children. Cover. December 1998. Columbus, OH: Highlights for Children Inc.

Christmas and childhood are so deeply connected in the West that altering Christmas practices troubles our conception of childhood. Yet this American version of Christmas, tying children to consumption, is a relatively new invention. In The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that early American Christmas celebrations were raucous, particularly in New York and Boston. Celebrants in the 18th and early 19th centuries usually consumed alcohol generously, sang, and started fights in public streets and squares. By the mid-1800s, middle-class reform-oriented women began to shift to domestic scenes that emphasized spending time with family and giving gifts to children. According to Nissenbaum, this “domestication of Christmas was thus related (as both effect and cause) to the creation of domesticity and of ‘childhood’ itself, even to the novel idea that the central purpose of the family was to provide not simply for the instruction of its children but for their happiness as well.”[2]

Providing for children’s happiness at Christmas took the form of gift giving. For Nissenbaum, many present-day aspects of Christmas are rooted in this shift away from drunken revelry in the name of respectability. In fact, the child-centric family structure developed hand-in-hand with the consumer-oriented celebrations of 19th-century urban reformers. These remain linked today, most visibly manifest in the U.S. with its emphasis on giving toys to children and the ubiquitous presence of Santa Claus. In an implied rejection of this version of Christmas, Santa Claus is notably absent from Highlights, especially in late twentieth and early twenty-first century issues, and gift buying, gift giving, and wish lists are significantly downplayed.

American Christmas practices have centered on children, but owe much of their rising popularity to American consumerism.

Gary Cross describes twentieth-century American Christmas rituals, among other holiday rituals, as “invented by adults to evoke in their offspring the wonder of innocence… Without too much exaggeration, we could say that holidays and pilgrimages, once expressions of deep communal needs, were metamorphosed into celebrations of the wondrous child.” Yet this rise in the centrality of childhood to Christmas celebrations is not the only force that produced modern holiday practices. Cross aptly notes this metamorphosis, “coincides both with new attitudes toward the young and the rise of consumerism.”[3] From the introduction of gift giving to children and the first appearance of Santa Claus in his contemporary form in Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicolas” in 1823, American Christmas practices have centered on children, but owe much of their rising popularity to American consumerism.

Against this backdrop, Christmas in Highlights looks almost other-worldly. Beginning with the editorial above, Highlights promotes the idea of giving simple hand-crafted gifts. Through the year, several pages of every issue of the magazine are given over to instructions in making crafts. These crafting projects very often utilize household objects meant to incur little expense. Often the end result is a useful, practical object like a letter holder or a box. In the December issues, many crafting projects specifically suggest giving these crafts as gifts and remind young readers that handmade gifts are often the most meaningful. Other craft projects in December issues describe how to make homemade Christmas decorations, rather than purchasing new ones. Images of children on covers of the magazine in throughout December issues reflect this homespun ethos. Children are shown making paper garlands or snowflakes, or decorating homemade pottery, woodwork, and the like.

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The cover of the December 2006 issue of Highlights for Children. Handcrafts, minimal decoration, and one present. The author problematizes this cover and the back cover of the same issue hereHighlights for Children, December 2006. Cover. Columbus, OH: Highlights for Children, Inc.

This break from gift-giving tradition, more than anything else, is what sets the child in Highlights apart. Gifts given and received among all members of families in Highlights are of this same homemade, low-cost variety. “The festival of toys,” as the sociologist Brian Sutton-Smith dubbed Christmas, is absent from this children’s magazine.[4] Instead, all family members give each other simple, small gifts, placing greater emphasis on spending time together.

The mountain of toys for children under Christmas trees has long done more than delight children. Gift-giving is a powerful marker and creator of power relations. In families at Christmas, parents’ gift-giving extravagance creates children’s delight, but also secures parents own position as givers of delight. Children are dependent upon adults for delight, and are often reminded of this through the holiday season with messages that tie good behavior to material rewards. On the other side of the exchange, children are incapable of returning gifts of comparable economic value, and usually not of comparable number. Thus, Christmas gift-giving within the family reinforces parents’ role as benevolent caregivers, albeit with unquestionably greater power. Children’s roles are solidified as being only capable of asking—often repeatedly—in hopes that someone’s kindness soon will be there to provide for them.

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A crafting page from the December 2010 issue of Highlights. Christmas decorations and a gift idea made from household materials and craft items. Highlights for Children. December, 2010. page 27. Columbus, OH: Highlights for Children, Inc.

Christmas gift-giving in Highlights upends this power relationship by making all gifts given of relative equal value. Rather than the child-centric holiday celebration based on parents giving and children receiving, parents and children in Highlights, at least in regard to gift-giving, exchange gifts more as peers. Each gives simple, minimal gifts, while downplaying the gifts themselves in lieu of companionship. While this sounds like an ideal Christmas for some, it is far out of the norm in practice. It may not even be the norm for the two million homes that subscribe to Highlights.

All through the year, encomiums to simplicity and anti-consumerism messages appear in Highlights. But the Christmas season, wrapped in gift-giving traditions, lists to Santa, shopping sprees, and extravagance gives them new meaning. This forces into view the power dynamics underlying Christmas gift-giving. It also reveals something of how childhood is seen in Highlights. The “wondrous child” is a by-product of Christmas consumerism, if not the actual aim. Highlights does away with the power dynamic of traditional family gift-giving and dispenses with consumerism—and seems willing to do so at the cost of the wondrous child.

s200_patrick.coxPatrick Cox is a PhD candidate in Childhood Studies at Rutgers and teaches children’s literature courses at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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[1] French Clark, Christine. “Dear Readers.” Highlights for Children. December 2006: 4.

[2] Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.

[3] Cross, Gary S. The Cute and the Cool : Wondrous Innocence and Modern American                                     Children’s Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] Sutton-Smith, Brian. Toys as Culture. New York: Gardner Press. 1986.

2 comments on “Plain Brown Pinecones are Beautiful, Too: Christmas Presents in Highlights for Children

  1. Thank you for reminding me and others how Christmas became about consumerism and power imbalance, and in my mind superficial and stressful. And, how much more heartening homemade gift giving between and with all family members is much more joyful, meaningful, and humble.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Patrick Cox

      Hello Perri. Thanks for this comment. I think one important aspect of all the pieces in The Activist History Review, is their ability to remind us that so much of what we do today–our practices, our traditions, our institutions, things that we sort of take for granted–none of them have to be the way they are. Like you said, “Christmas became about consumerism,” and it happened gradually, through changes over time. There are many other ways we still can celebrate Christmas. I find it uplifting to remember that if things could change in the past to get us to where we are now, then things can change in the future, too. In fact, it’s inevitable that they will. We’re not stuck with anything.

      Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

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