Analysis: today’s children are commercially savvy and brand literate when they write to Santa with Christmas gift requests

In 2017, Irish households spent an estimated average of €870 on Christmas, with the biggest portion being on gifts. And while the Irish are no longer the biggest spenders in Europe, the acquired habit of giving substantial gifts, particularly to children, has persisted.

In the early 1800s, the first Santa letters were from St Nicholas himself, or written by parents to their children.  Children were advised to be on their best behaviour, and parents often wrote letters making reference to children’s past misdemeanours. Letters were burned in the chimney and Santa, as he became known, left his letters for the children by the fireplace. 

In the United States, the arrival of an efficient postal service encouraged children to post their letters to Santa.  In Europe, children left their requests for Santa beside some small presents. Eventually, the letters from parents or the good St Nicholas himself faded out, with children continuing to tell Santa of their wishes.

From RTÉ Archives, a young girl gives her thoughts on Christmas to Newsbeat in 1967

Today, Santa has to work his way through a more complex agenda. By the age of 10, children are abandoning toys in favour of computer games and screen based interactions. Traditional toys have been overtaken by computer game tie-ins, character clothing and toys related to film and entertainment themes. While past generations of children had restricted access to the media, US research suggests that today’s child spends more time in front of a screen than in school over an average childhood. The average child has access to five screen devices at home with up to one third of American infants having a TV in their bedroom. 

Santa also has to accommodate to smaller family units. In Ireland, the typical family size is now 2.3 children with 65 percent of first–time mothers in their thirties and more than half of mothers are in the workplace.  Increasing household income, more compressed family time and more time spent out of home have opened up new patterns of influence for children. These changes are reflected in studies of children’s communications with Santa Claus.

From RTÉ Archives, a compilation of memorable moments from The Late Late Toy Show over the years

One Australian study of children’s letters to Santa, collected in a department store, found that almost 80 percent of the letters included brand name items. Children wrote in polite terms, using direct or qualified requests, with 70 percent asking for more than one brand. The letter writers used drawings, stickers, collages and personal signatures. Similarly, a Brazilian study of children’s letters to Santa, written in a school classroom setting, found they were all enhanced with drawings representing Santa, gifts and other children. Brazilian children made reference to their good behaviour, obedience and respect as reasons why they deserved good consideration from Santa. 

An analysis of letters sent by British children to the Santa Claus Greeting Centre, North Pole, Finland found an even higher percentage of letters (87 percent) included brand names. The average British letter included five gift requests. These requests often gave more details such as the price of the gift, a page number from a catalogue, or where to buy the gift. It was quite common to ask for a surprise at the end of the named gift requests, perhaps implying that the specific gift requests are likely to be fulfilled. Children also wished to offer something for Santa’s reindeer such as a mince pie, milk or carrots.

Today, Santa has to work his way through a more complex agenda

How do parents communicate to their children about Christmas gift requests? Data from an Australian study found that parents ask their children what they would like for Christmas. They ask children where they got their information and discuss the suitability of the gift. There was very little parental intervention to limit gift requests. 

A second study of parents of school going children found that parents disagreed with the idea of giving the "hottest" brand, or giving a branded toy just to be noticed. Mothers were more likely to agree with the idea that a good Christmas gift was a branded toy and were the predominant information seekers on brand names and availability. Overall, parents had a low opinion of popular brand name toys, but they agreed that a branded gift would be of better quality and would improve the chances of giving a good gift. 

Today’s children are commercially savvy, brand literate and aware of parental anxiety to know about Christmas gift requests. Rather than "pester power", there is parental encouragement to give requests and influence decisions, but parents will themselves evaluate the suitability and quality of the brands requested.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ