Christmas Shopping in a Time of Recession

UPDATE: So much for fighting materialism.

As Black Friday dawned on Long Island, 2,000 shoppers waited in line outside a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York. The anticipation of low-priced flat screen televisions and children’s games too much for them, they pushed and shoved their way past the locked doors before the store even opened. In the ensuing madness, a temporary Wal-Mart worker, a 34-year-old man, was trampled. As he lay on the ground, the bargain crazed shoppers stomped over him, and continued to shop even as the shocked Wal-Mart workers tried to get them to leave the store.


Is this what Christmas has come to be? Have the media and society in general turned us into such consumerists that we eschew any sense of human decency in order to save fifty dollars off a flat screen monitor? As someone on Twitter said: “Dear Jesus, We honor the memory of your miraculous birth by offering you this sacrifice, a 34-year-old temporary Wal-Mart employee. Amen”

Christmas has become indistinguishable from all the other “Big Sale” holidays that have lost all meaning: Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Fourth of July. Every holiday is just another day to spend more, buy more, and fill our lives with clutter and our desk drawers with bills.

It’s time to step back and think about what’s important to us. Is saving fifty dollars worth the life of a man? Is Christmas going to have any more meaning because you stood outside in the cold for five hours so you can get the sale price on that bike for your kid? No. It’s not.

And what happened at that Wal-Mart on Long Island today is all the more reason to pay close attention to the message you send your children as to what Christmas is about.

(The article below was published before the stampede.)

Everyone knows the real meaning of the holidays, but we are all aware of what holiday season — and Christmas in particular — has become.

It’s a weeks-long festival of commercialism and materialism. It’s a constant barrage of ads reminding us that our spouses are waiting for that very special gift and our kids are expecting a bagful of toys. It’s the time of year when parents fight in the aisles of Wal-Mart for that last “must-have” toy, when we become stressed and short tempered, turning mall parking lots into battlefields.


Times are tough.  The economy is looking bleak. But it’s Christmas time, and Christmas time is spending time, right?  What happens when we can’t spend like we used to? What becomes of Christmas when our wallets are thin and our credit is stretched to its limits? What will we tell the kids?

We could start by telling our kids no.  Sure, a lot of us already do that, but let’s face it: we live in a time of overindulgence. Kids with expensive Macbooks and iPods.  Kids who freak out at the thought of not wearing clothes emblazoned with the most elite company logos. When children are used to expecting more, and we’re used to buying more, it’s hard to suddenly stop the tradition of Christmas overindulgence.

Perhaps now is a good time to have a talk with our children about the economy.  Now is a good time to take Christmas back.

We can ask ourselves and ask our family members: What does Christmas mean to you?  What would it be without the mall Santas and stack of bills?  Why does it have to be about presents, whether giving or receiving?

Perhaps the downturn in the economy could be taken advantage of.  We could all use this opportunity to turn Christmas from a time of greed and stress to a more traditional time of family, love, and peace.

The winter holidays are a wonderful time of year.  From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, towns are lit up with beautiful lights, telephone poles are strung with garland, and, if we are lucky, it snows just enough to lend a feel of authenticity to the season.  There are parties with spiked eggnog and trees adorned with stars and angels. Houses glow brighter each night as another candle on the menorah is lit.  On the surface, it’s a beautiful season fit for a Norman Rockwell painting.  We need to enjoy that aspect of the holidays more.


Talk with your family about this and find ways to ease the financial burden of Christmas while keeping the spirit.  The idea of homemade gifts or just giving the gift of time to each other may not sit well with kids at first, but this could be a great opportunity to let them know that things are a little tight right now — not just for the family but for everyone — and Christmas will have to be low key.

It sounds easy, right?  Just gather the family, give them the talk, and everyone will understand. Everyone will be happy to make and give popsicle stick art for Christmas and renew their closeness by singing carols in front of the fireplace.

Or not.

Maybe somewhere out there exists a family in which Martha Stewart has married Norman Rockwell and the kids are all as sweet as Cindy Brady. But I’m now inclined to believe that family exists only in paintings, made-for-TV movies, and commercials that make us think if only we buy the right products, our families will be less dysfunctional this Christmas.  Apparently, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup are all the therapy we need.

It’s hard not to buy into the commercialism.  It’s difficult to tell our kids that while last Christmas they all got new laptops, this Christmas they will get McDonald’s gift certificates and a hug. Anyone who is a parent knows what will happen if you hand out coupons for hugs instead of presents.  There will be mutiny. Let’s face it, our kids won’t get excited over an imaginary Christmas.  And it’s not just the kids; it’s us, too.  We get caught up in the frenzy of ads, of well-meaning friends and relatives who want to buy our kids more than we can afford to give them.  The Christmas music, the holiday displays, the Ho! Ho! Ho! at every store; somewhere along the line they all became synonymous with doling out cash.  The Ho! Ho! Ho! Is  more like Buy! Buy! Buy!


Sure, capitalism is a good thing.  I’ve always criticized those who call the day after Thanksgiving “Buy Nothing Day.”  I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy anything.  But most of us will be able to buy less this year, and instead of thinking of how that will ruin Christmas, we should be thinking of how it will save Christmas. We can get back to the warmth and joy of the season. We can start appreciating the holidays for the time we spend with family, instead of the time we spend wrapping and then opening gifts.

Yes, the economy is bad.  We’ve heard some people use the word “depression.”  Times are hard.  But let us remember Scrooge, who said, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Christmas is about heart.  It’s about sharing, joy, family, and traditions.  Our maxed-out credit cards and thinning bank accounts should in no way keep us from embracing those parts of the holiday. Our children may not appreciate the smaller gifts and family togetherness now, but they will learn a valuable, lasting lesson about doing without when money is tight.


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