Monday, December 12, 2011

'Tis the season to be prudent

My ex and I overspent considerably for Christmas of ’83 (it was mostly my fault) and were miserable when the bills arrived. We resolved ever after to faithfully save for Christmas club and spend not a penny more than we had accumulated for the year. The first year, we saved $404, and we increased it by about a hundred dollars each year.

By 1989, we had saved $900 for the year, and when we learned that good friends at church would have to choose between buying winter coats for their three growing boys or buying them Christmas gifts, we looked at each other and easily decided to give the family $100 out of our Christmas fund. Our friends bought gifts for their boys, along with the winter coats, wrapped them, and put them under their tree. While they were gone to Nashville to visit grandma, someone broke into their house and stole all the gifts.

On the other hand, I recall that in 1988, we spent a grand total of $50 to buy seven gifts for our 2-year-old daughter, and she was perfectly happy with what she got. (And we learned that while you are busy assembling the drum set for which you paid a pretty penny at Toys ’R’ Us, your kid has forgotten all about it and is busy playing with the box it came in.)

Has anyone noticed that no one ever gives Thanksgiving gifts (even though, in a way, it would seem to go naturally with the theme of that day) or, usually, even sends Thanksgiving cards? Attempts have been made to promote gift-giving and card exchange for Thanksgiving, but they have mostly fallen flat. Apparently, the prospect of good food and good fellowship are enough for most people. What if there were a change in our culture such that something similar happened at Christmas?

I’m not necessarily arguing for a culture of radical frugality. I am well aware that retailers make about half their yearly revenue in the Christmas shopping season. There are still small mom-and-pop businesses whose owners sit up at night wondering if they will last for another year or even make payroll this month, to support their families and contribute to the local economy, and I have no wish to see them go under. And even in the large retail chains, there are people reporting to work for their $9 an hour jobs for whom this is their only prospect of employment and their only chance to buy anything at all for their own kids or even pay the bills.

The point of Christmas as it exists now, sadly, is that one experiences either wild relief that he is not impoverished and humiliated, or equally wild despair that he is.

Still, I’m not out to persuade people to stop shopping. I do wonder, though, what it would be like if our culture changed so that the crowds at Black Friday were there to snap up the most popular toys—but for the purpose of donating them to the local orphanage—where clothes flew off the rack at stores, but so that you could give a sweater or a pair of slippers to your elderly neighbor or give new sneakers to the kids down the block whose parents were unemployed. What if each person wished only for a token gift for himself—some note paper, or a paperback book, or a CD—but was really excited by the prospect of how much he could buy for others who had no prospect of reciprocating?

Of course I know that even wise parents, not caught up in the mad rush for the latest fad toy, get a good deal of genuine pleasure in giving to their own children for Christmas. My parents would sit up until 2 a.m. wrapping many more gifts for my brothers and me than they could afford and give each other perhaps two small gifts apiece.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget when I took my daughter along—again, she was 2 at the time—while I put a frayed dress shirt in the Goodwill repository and told her I was giving a shirt to the poor people because that was what God wanted us to do. She beamed and gave me a big hug, and the next time a guest entered our house, she blurted out “Daddy gave a shirt to the poor people!” I still wonder if it isn't possible to generalize such a reaction throughout our society. Sales need not fall or cash registers stop ringing, but I can’t help but think there would be a subtly different flavor in a line full of people with their shopping carts piled high, most of whom were standing there to buy one or two things for themselves and the rest of their huge pile of goods for those who had nothing. I think it would really start deserving the name of “Christmas” shopping once more.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.