My Christmas Confessions

Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo in the opening line of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." It's a sentiment that lives on at my house, 139 years later. But while Jo was hoping for a book and a couple of oranges, my 7-year-old daughter has visions of electronic circuitry dancing in her head. When we sat down—before Halloween—to e-mail Santa, she wanted to add not just videogames and a digital camera to her list, but also a laptop and a cell phone. In a moment of righteous anti-materialism, I nixed the computer and the phone. Those aren't the kind of gifts we can ask for from anyone, I explained piously, crossing a laptop off my own internal wish list.

But I found myself in a store a few weeks later, buying a knit cap for Fluffy, my daughter's stuffed Webkinz golden retriever—whose only real value is its online avatar, hence the laptop. And I started thinking about why it's so hard to resist buying too many presents for your kid. I really would like to cut back on the gifts. I aspire to send a dozen fuzzy chicks to an impoverished family in Africa, to make a personal sacrifice for soldiers off fighting a war, the way the March family did in "Little Women." But I'll probably just go nuts shopping, like I do every year.

I'll have plenty of company. The average American is set to spend $469 on gifts for family, according to the National Retail Federation, up 4 percent from last year. "Every year I say I'm not going to buy as much, and every year I fall into the same trap," says Erica Chambers, director of special events at Los Angeles Center Studios. Her sons, 11 and 7, want $60 Wii games and a $150 skateboard. So sticking to her budget of $300 per kid means each boy would get three gifts. By Chambers's calculation, that means all the gifts will be torn open by 9:05 on Christmas morning.

This year I won't exceed my budget. That's because I didn't set a budget, so I can avoid any nasty self-recrimination in the New Year. Besides, the Webkinz cap really was cute—it says DUDE on it—and it cost only $4.99, so I didn't feel bad about buying two more Webkinz dolls—and a mountain of more expensive stuff. I could imagine my child's joy as she rips open a big box and sees all that Webkinz loot inside—the perfect synthetic representation of my unconditional love. The worst part is that parents who can't afford Nintendo DS games feel the same pressure to provide their kids with a good answer to the post-holiday question: "What did you get?"

Until just a few decades before Alcott introduced Americans to the four sisters in her tale, Christmas was an adult holiday, filled with drinking and carousing, according to Steven Mintz, author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood." It wasn't until after the Industrial Revolution, when family began to feel like a sacred respite from the working world, that we began to view children as the embodiment of innocence and wonder. Gift giving to children was bound up with that new conception of childhood. Selling toys directly to children didn't really begin till the early 20th century, with Shirley Temple and Flash Gordon.

We all know there's more to it than that. "We know our kids are growing up with too much stress and pressure, and we want to give them everything we can to make up for it," Mintz says. "We have a deep need to give our lives meaning. Manufacturers may exploit those needs, but they're real." I just want my daughter to have those same magical moments I remember as a child, when I first saw all those presents under the tree. So even though my clearest memories of Christmas are of my father reading " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" in front of a blazing fire, I'll probably pick up a Webkinz penguin right before the holiday. But she's definitely not getting a laptop. At least not this year.