What's Wrong with Christmas in Highlights for Children?

Patrick Cox, H-NET President and Editor's picture

                                                                                                                                                                                           Back to American Childhoods


In a long running feature in the popular children’s magazine Highlights for Children titled “What’s Wrong?” readers are given an image and asked, “How many silly things can you find in this picture?” In identifying what the magazine has laid out as "wrong" we frequently find what the creators of Highlights consider “right.” This includes ideas about Christmas and childhood, and these ideas are starkly at odds with mainstream ideas of Christmas and childhood in the US. Christmas in Highlights is less about delight and wonder and magic and more about being practical, giving homemade gifts, and simplicity—a unique approach to Christmas in children’s media, suggesting a different idea of childhood.

Since the mid-1990’s until just this past year, “What’s Wrong?” appeared on the back cover of the magazine and the picture in question is a “wrong” or “silly” version of the image on the front of the magazine—which is presumably “right” or “not silly.” In December 2006, the image on the front cover is of three children crafting in a living room at Christmas time. There is a cozy fire in the fireplace. Two children sit on the floor: a boy making paper snowflakes and a girl knitting a scarf. The third child stands and holds a piece of blue fabric. There is a plate of what look like chocolate chip cookies. There is one present on the floor near them, wrapped in green with a simple red bow, and one thin garland strung above the fireplace, also with a single bow. A dog sleeping on the floor, a cat lounging in the window, and twilight snow falling outside all suggest a quiet scene.

In the “What's Wrong?” version on the back cover, the same room seems to have been overrun by excessive Christmas. The single present is now four, wrapped in multiple colors and patterns, and one of them has grown legs and is running across the mantle. The girl’s knitting needles have been replaced by candy canes. Someone has attached jingle bells to the scarf she was knitting. The halls have been decked with much larger garland and bows. Gingerbread men run all over the room, and Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer peers in the window. The silent night has been raucously disrupted by recognizable symbols of secular Christmas. Some of them are easy to call “wrong” or “silly:” the present with legs and living gingerbread men, for example. Others seem at home in a Christmas scene, such as candy canes and jingle bells, yet only appear in the “wrong” version. While Rudolph is a common character for many around Christmas time, and certainly in children’s lit and media, the fact that he appears here as a living reindeer—as opposed to a character in a book or TV show—suggests Highlights might consider Rudolph acceptable if confined to those fictions, but any belief in the character as anything but fiction is “wrong.” The three children all seem happier in the “wrong” scene: the tiny tots with their eyes all aglow are now rocking around the Christmas tree, quiet contentment transforms into sheer delight at the bright and festive Christmas scene. They seem quite happy to be surrounded by Rudolph and Christmas cookies come to life. What makes some of these fairly common indicators of Christmas “wrong” in Highlights view? And is the childrens’ delight at Christmas being called wrong, too?

If it feels off somehow to call children’s delight at Christmas wrong, it probably should. Historian Gary Cross builds an argument about the “wondrous innocence” of American childhood that begins with a description of a standard Christmas scenario: children running down the stairs on Christmas morning with wide-eyed excitement to find a Christmas tree surrounded by presents Santa has left overnight. Childhood delight at Christmas, innocence, and consumerism all play a part in this wondrous childhood crafted by, in Cross’s words, an "adult need to create fantasy worlds to evoke delight in children” in Christmas, other holidays, birthdays, and amusement parks, largely through consumerism (95). “Wondrous childhood” is very hard to avoid in America, especially in December, except on the cover of arguably the most popular children’s magazine in the country. (The company claims over two million subscribers, more than either Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair.) There, childhood at Christmas is quiet, calm, somewhat minimalist, and home made.

This quiet Christmas is not limited to a single cover of the magazine. For example, Santa Claus, arguably the most prominent figure in wondrous childhood, has been almost entirely absent from the pages of Highlights over the past 30 years. Santa used to appear multiple times in every December issue in stories and images, as did elves and flying reindeer, since the magazine was founded in 1946. Other Christmas-y pages in December Highlights issues of Chistmases past included short non-fiction pieces on, for example, the history of Christmas trees or Christmas celebrations in other countries, and short fiction about children at Christmas who typically learn valuable lessons about giving and kindness. Recurring characters The Timbertoes and The Bear Family celebrated christmas. Overt Christianity was also prominent in the early years of the magazine all year round and the December issues always included bible stories, sheet music of religious carols, and images of the nativity and angels. Jesus and Santa both appear less and less frequently in Highlights beginning in the 1950’s. By the 1990’s, Highlights is beginning to look a lot less like Christmas. Santa and Jesus are both almost completely absent, as are the decorations, the bright colors, the piles of gift wrapped presents. They’re replaced by pleas to keep Christmas simple, emphasizing time with family and friends, giving to charities, and making presents by hand. Several pages are given to instructions on making homemade presents and homemade decorations. Santa still sometimes appears in drawings submitted by children under the age of six, and in December 2010 Santa and Mrs. Claus are part of a joke submitted by a child reader. Santa’s protege, Rudolph, appears in the “silly” image, but Santa isn’t even there: he’s relegated to child-ish contributions and jokes. Other features of what I’ll call fantastical Christmas—the elements of secular Christmas that merge into the magical, so Santa but not trees, flying reindeer but not cookies—many of which are commonplace in other children’s lit and media, make similar appearances in the “What’s wrong?” feature in other December issues, including anthropomorphic reindeer and life sized ginger bread houses. A prominent figure in the “wrong” image on the back cover of the December 1999 issue is a human-sized, talking, walking (actually skiing) gingerbread man, published the same year as Jan Brett’s The Gingerbread Baby. There sometimes seems to be an anti-anthropomorphism spin in Highlights that extends beyond Christmas, which points to the magazine’s overall rejection of “fantasy” and focus on the realistic and practical. The December 2008 “What’s Wrong?” image is another domestic Christmas scene, but with a “wrong” white mouse driving a red convertible across the living room floor—a clear reference to Stuart Little. Representations of Christmas in Highlights still include elements of secular Christmas in toned down forms, but not fantastical Christmas. There’s Christmas joy and Christmas cheer, but not Christmas magic.

Santa’s magic is powerful and slipping him out of a child’s Christmas in Highlights is significant. Santa has historically been the nexus of childhood, Christmas, and consumerism, and still is today. He offers a way for both parents and children to ignore or downplay the consumerist side of holiday celebrations while still consuming (“We didn’t buy all this—elves made the toys and Santa delivered them”), and he’s an opportunity for parents to delight their children, to give them “Christmas magic.” (See Russell Belk and Ian Stronarch for more on Santa's role in US culture.) Cindy Dell Clark’s ethnographic work includes interviews with and observations of children and adults at Christmas time in the US in the 1990’s. Her younger child informants conveyed an appreciation for Santa as “magic” and cited his chimney entry into houses, his speed, and his abundance as proof of his “magicalness” (48). Personally, my own kids are four and ten years old. My ten year old knows Santa isn’t real, but still wanted to join his brother on Santa’s lap earlier this month. The pictures I took of him smiling as Santa hugs him, even while knowing the truth, give me tears of Christmas joy. (The four year old, meanwhile, actually seemed pretty bored throughout the whole experience.) The producers of Highlights keep its content realistic throughout the year, rarely indulging in magic and fantasy. Invitations to children to use their imagination in the magazine typically focus on imagining realistic things, such as possible future careers.

But Santa may have even more significance for children beyond magic. Clark’s research finds something other than magic is the real essence of Santa: “Faith” she concludes, “is the relevant mental experience. Santa Claus gives young children an experience in which the value of faith is endorsed by most adults, from editors who write confirming ‘Yes, Virginia’ essays, to creators of affirming movies such as Miracle on 34th Street. Once a year at least, among young children at least, faith prevails in the modern Western world” (57). Add me to the list of confirmers as an atheist father who took his sons to see Santa and teared up when Santa shook his hand. Unwittingly, and in contrast to the rest of the year, I taught my kids something about faith that day, as well as on other days when I’ve secretly put the elf on a shelf into new funny poses for them to discover, or when I’ve dressed up as Santa myself and delivered candy canes to our front door while they watched through the window.

Highlights leaves out the magic, relegates Santa to children’s contributions, and seems to not offer this extraordinarily common lesson in faith that so much of the rest of the US joins in on. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes that Christmas is, “the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice,” but Highlights doesn’t speak in quite the same way (5). She goes on, “They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year” (5). But the child in Highlights is not quite in lock step with her peers. She makes gifts by hand. She doesn’t ask for presents. Her decorations are minimal. Does she also not have faith?

To anything that can be said about childhood in Highlights there is usually one exception: Goofus, the perennially bad boy who is constant foil (and cautionary example) to saintly Gallant. Goofus expects tons of presents under his tree, tears into them ungratefully, and fondles several Christmas cookies on the plate before taking more than his fair share. Yet despite being on the naughty list, even Goofus never expresses belief in Santa. He’s always had his limits. Goofus may be naughty, but he’s not “wrong” or “silly” when it comes to Santa Claus.

If Santa, Rudolph, and other parts of fantastical Christmas are the sorts of training ground for faith that Clark suggests, what is Highlights up to? Avoiding faith, in a magazine that was once overtly Christian? Simply denying children their Christmas magic? Perhaps not. Clark goes on, “A child can lose literal belief in Santa but retain the visionary powers to believe in whatever still provides sanctuary and meaning…Faith is a never ending story, able to endure in less concrete, culturally mature forms” (58). Rather than denying faith in Santa, Highlights may be contributing to childrens’ movement away from childish faith to more “culturally mature forms” of faith. It may be the quiet, domestic scenes sans raucous Christmas disruption provide a form of sanctuary and meaning for Highlights that Santa, at some point, no longer does. Wondrous childhood is thus training for some sort of adolescence or adulthood that keeps in touch with something Christmas-y, just not Santa. It also suggests wondrous childhood is, in a way, meant to end, even though parents often have a hard time with “the end of the magic” when the truth about Santa becomes known.

Yet cultural associations of childhood and Christmas are long-standing (see Nissenbaum) and have everything to do with Santa, delight, and mountains of toys under festooned trees. Christmas and childhood are so linked that to alter one demands alteration of the other; an attempted association between childhood and a quieter Christmas troubles our conception of childhood today. Wondrous innocence without the wonder and innocence looks a bit like the Georgian rational childhood, something out of Maria Edgeworth, and I suspect that’s a bit much for most parents, even without competition from the marketplace and media. Despite the efforts of the good folks at Highlights, we’re still looking to delight our children, still taking them to see Santa and striving to see some delight in their eyes, even at the risk of contaminating their innocence with consumerism. But Highlights is taking a stand. Year round the magazine is filled with anti-consumerist advice and handicrafts with very few forays into fantasy. These things only become more obvious at Christmas time. When Sedgwick sees all our institutions lined up together at Christmas, Highlights asks us to find how many of them are silly. And this suggests an American childhood I expect very few actually have. The children in these images are still Christmas celebrants, after all; they are not, for example, non-Christians who simply don’t participate in the holiday. But they celebrate Christmas in rather non-mainstream ways, and certainly in ways that are not often explored in media which promotes secular, material, and fantastical Christmas. The children in Highlights are very often white, as I suspect most of their readers are, and main characters in stories and comics in the magazine are most often male, never queer, and pretty much always comfortably middle class. But at Christmas, their anti-consumerist pragmatism is surprisingly non-conformist.



Belk, Russell. “A Child’s Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion.” Journal of American Culture. 10. (April, 1987): 87-100.

Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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

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

Stronach, Ian and Alan Hodkinson. “Toward a Theory of Santa: or, the Ghost of Christmas Present.” Anthropology Today. 7. 6: (2011): 15-19.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Back to American Childhoods

Ah hah, those Highlights magazines in doctor's offices, school libraries, and everyplace with a children's focus do have an angle or have had many different angles over the years. Your historical analysis of the magazine's picture game about what's wrong in a picture and how it has changed from different publication years was good to think about. It takes so much time and research to see patterns in any body of work and you're doing it. It helped to see the different personal, consumer, and academic perspectives, too. This world of children's consumerism... it really has me thinking about the persuasive power of suggestive imagery to kids and what is presented or has been presented by the inclusion, juxtaposition, or exclusion of certain ideas, imagery, and symbols.

An intriguing article. From your description, it seems that Highlights wants to push a non-consumerist and pro-family vision of Christmas. 19th and early 20th century magazines were always pushing hand-crafted gifts (even as their ads promoted consumer goods). It almost sounds like a conscious throwback to some ideal of family-centric, non-consumer Christmas, though the absence of both Santa Claus and Jesus would be less common in earlier pubs. I wonder how the recent Highlights would compare with early children's magazines such as The Youth's Companion.

Thanks for these comments.

Indeed, Ellen, it seems to be a very nostalgic view of children at Christmas: harkening back to some pre-consumerist American Christmas celebration. Like many nostalgic views of childhood, it looks back to a time that may not have existed, right? It seems like a family centric Christmas only came into common practice right alongside a consumerist Christmas. Family-centric, non-consumerist Christmas celebrations are less throwbacks and more a turning away from historical trend and current practice.

I used to have a box full of Youth’s Companion but I gave it away. Maybe over break I’ll get a chance to look into the early 20th century children’s magazines I still have in my collection and see what I find.

And Tiff…welcome to Childhood Studies!

For what it’s worth, another short piece of mine on Christmas in Highlights was just published on The Activist History Review as part of a special issue on Family and Holiday. That piece looks more at gift-giving but it contains an image of the cover I discuss at the start of this article, if you'd like to see for yourself. Here’s a link to the issue.