Christmas Eve Box: is it naughty or nice?
A surprise collection of goodies has become the latest must-have festive trend, but it doesn't come cheap. Lynne Caffrey asks parents are these new holiday gimmicks just another unwelcome burden?
Irish Christmases are full of simple, not to mention cheap, traditions… gathering for The Late Late Toy Show, frosty walks to midnight mass, carol singing and curling up in new pyjamas with a mug of hot chocolate on Christmas Eve to name a few.
However, there are fears our homely comforts are being usurped by money-spinning innovations that give children unrealistic expectations and place unsustainable pressure on parents.
The one-up-mum-ship of the Elf On The Shelf - which moves to a new spot every night - and the popularity of the Christmas Eve Box (€14.99, Dealz), which is filled with goodies for opening before Santa comes, are just two of the latest traditions. Another is Santa Cam, a fake surveillance camera allowing Santa to watch the kids at all times. This year, parents could also buy Late Late Toy Show-branded pyjamas (€10) and hot chocolate mugs (€6) from Penneys.
It's an investment of time and cash that would make a snowman shiver, but some parents fear there are less obvious costs too.
"I think Elf On The Shelf and Santa Cams are cruel!" one mum wrote on Rollercoaster.ie. "It's no wonder this generation are so stressed."
Another commented: "Most of these 'magical traditions' are commercially driven and actually take the magic out of Christmas and childhood in general."
Laura Erskine of Mummypages.ie doesn't share their fears. "My own children really enjoy waking up in the morning to see if the Elf has arrived and what sort of mischief he got up to during the night," she says.
"Most parents have ways of disciplining their children all year round," she says. "But there is a special emphasis on good behaviour in December, when parents will use any tool at their disposal."
Project manager Ashley Duffy Gibson, mum to Amy (4) and Scott (6) from Ballyboden, Dublin, says the problem with the Elf isn't its all-seeing eye, but the fact it must find a new perch every night. Instead, Ashley uses a tradition inherited from her childhood to keep order. "Christmas elves move in after Halloween and hide around the house, sending nightly reports to Santy," she says. "Last week, after some very bold behaviour, the elves crossed a toy off Amy's Santy list - devastation and some excellent behaviour followed."
Mum-of-one Riona O'Connor, who blogs as The Unnatural Woman, is originally from Ireland but lives in London.
"I can't even imagine having the Elf, there's too much s*** already on my shelves," she says. "I do like the idea of the PJs in the Christmas Eve Box but why do you have to buy that? Just get new PJs.
"The best ideas I get always come from watching other mams who've been doing it for years, not from a shop or a product.
"Christmas needs to be a little bit messy: I remember every year my poor mother dragging the tree in at the last minute, scraping it off the wall and us trying to balance it as she filled the concrete block with sand to hold it." Messy certainly rings true for Ashley. She remembers the traditional call-in to the neighbours after mass going disastrously wrong when she was a child. "They were handing round poitín. Dad had a few shots and fell like a log and broke their new telly," she says. "That was the end of that tradition."
Consultant child psychologist David Carey says while traditions foster security, changing things up won't do children any lasting harm… and he has no issue with the Elf On The Shelf.
"There's a huge element of security [in traditions] because the human brain is always uncomfortable with what it hasn't experienced before," says David. "The more we have predictability and sameness in the environment of the children, the more secure they're going to feel and the less anxious.
"Under the age of seven, traditions don't mean much to them. Beyond that, they like the same as they've had in the past until their teen years. It varies from child to child and family to family."
Make-up artist Stacey Doyle (33) from Castledermot, Co Kildare, says her children Shannon (9) and Michael (6) are "big worriers" which is why she hasn't got an Elf, although there is one in their school.
While Stacey loves the Toy Show and dresses her children in matching PJs on Christmas Eve, she won't be buying the branded versions or a Christmas Eve Box. For her, the box is simply cashing in on a tradition a lot of families have anyway.
She does use the Portable North Pole app, where she can arrange for Santa to make personalised calls, read stories and deliver the all-important news of which list they made it on to. "There's great excitement," she says of the annual call. "The kids will be literally shaking waiting to hear…"
So are these new practices elbowing out the more meaningful, spiritual elements of Christmas?
Laura Erskine says meaning comes from spending time with family, whatever you're doing.
"It's about doing the same thing over and over again - that's what children remember. Whether that's hanging the stockings up or going to the same place for a Christmas Eve walk every year," she says. "We play Disney Monopoly and my children associate it with us having more time to do that with them, so they really look forward to it.
"Lots of Mummypages mums use inherited Christmas traditions from their own families and then add something new," she says. "The memories from their own Christmases stay with them forever… it's the repetition of those traditions that makes them feel good as a family unit."
Other traditions popular with Mummypages.ie readers include baking Christmas cookies for Santa, going to the panto, crafting an ornament for the tree, making handprints in clay, and taking a picture of the whole family in the same position every year. Midnight mass, carol services and the Christmas Day children's mass are also still popular with her readers, as is giving.
"It's not so much families as schools that are fostering that sense that it's all about giving through the Christmas Shoebox Appeal," says Laura. "My own children came home in earnest after hearing all about the children who don't get Christmas presents."
Another tradition Laura adheres to goes some way to staving off the 'I want' culture.
"We have a mantra that helps formulate our Christmas list for Santa - it's 'something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read'."
While collections like these may offer a temporary respite from the commercialism of the season, David Carey argues it's a juggernaut and we either "roll with it or try to pretend it doesn't exist".
"If you're not comfortable with a tradition, stop or, more importantly, don't start it in the first place," he says. "It's the job of children to ask for the sun, moon and stars - as parents we have the responsibility to hold the line. And I think most parents do this pretty well."