Christmas is the defining American holiday. Most might say Thanksgiving because it is uniquely American. Yet Christmas is all about America’s core values – buying and giving. Thousands of dollars are spent just getting us in the mood to buy and spend. Christmas trees are erected in every building, corner and nook. Giant snowflakes hang from streetlights, and holly wreaths adorn city squares. The media has tried to whip us into a frenzy of buying, all in hopes that we will save the economy with our holiday spending, which will show a sign of hope.
I recall two years in a row where I was at Toys R Us at midnight on Christmas Eve. It was a terrifying experience to watch parents race shopping carts through aisles, completely unaware of what their children needed and determined to give them what they wanted; to create the fantasy Christmas they themselves had dreamed of as a child. And what did that get us? Young adults who still believe the ATM machine makes money and instant gratification isn’t instant enough.
For a couple of Christmases’, when our kids were teenagers, I suggested we abandon commercialism and make each other gifts. Even my husband looked at me crazy; save that “Walton Family Christmas” stuff for someone else. Years later when both I and their father had lost our jobs and there was no money for presents I tried it again. My regifted items to my children, wrapped with little notes that told them how precious this item was to me and why I wanted them to have it now, were met with weak smiles and puzzled stares. Where was a gift with a manual and operating instructions? Why didn’t they get something they could wear or play? It will take decades for our culture to be deprogrammed after years of excess and prosperity. It will be years before my children truly understand the beauty and love that come from giving when you have nothing.
Some American children are learning that lesson right now in the Great Recession. The letters to Santa, received by the U.S. Post Offices tell the true story of America in the Great Recession. This year children are asking for warm coats and shoes instead of IPods and video games. And Americans respond. The other side of our buying frenzy is our willingness to give, even in hard times.
Naturally, I look to the Great Depression for some sense of what to expect, although I am mindful that those were different times, a different culture and a different technological environment. For those who did not do well in U.S. History, the Great Depression began with a stock market crash in 1929 and deepened to a 28% unemployment rate by 1932. In a report commissioned by U.S. non-profits preparing for the serious economic downturn they saw ahead, a study of charitable giving in the Depression tells an interesting story. I will let you check it out for yourself. But the important thing is that letters to Santa are being answered. Americans got through the Depression together and that is how we will survive the Great Recession.
Most importantly there is an opportunity to change the meaning of Christmas giving. A new reality show, Downsizing, is a living example of how teenagers, who once had it all, can learn to love life with less and really appreciate each other.
This Christmas can be the beginning of the corny but true journey to understanding the “true meaning of Christmas.” It is about gratitude for the people in your life and what they bring you every day, not what they wrap up and put under the tree. The gift of love is the most priceless gift that Santa will bring. I hope you had a transformative Holiday.