Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's (not) beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Everyone in the blogosphere (especially the personal finance blogosphere) seems to have a post by now dedicated to Christmas shopping and how to harness fabulous deals. I usually love money-saving tips -- bring them on!

Lately, though, I'm tired of scanning these gift-giving pointers -- perhaps because most are inanely obvious and repetitive in nature. Yes, I know that if I make the presents myself I can save more money, or if I shop deals online versus in-store or wait to give gifts a day after Christmas, I can save big. Sigh. I think there's a bigger picture issue that's apparent this year aside from finding the cheapest Wii or flat-screen TV. Maybe it's that so many of us are unemployed this year, or maybe it's that those of us who still have jobs are struggling financially, but to paraphrase Love from the other day, "It just doesn't really feel like Christmas this year."

This sentiment truly hit me when I stood en masse on a crowded escalator yesterday, nothing but a small pin prick on a nameless mall map, peering over the revolving handrail at the mall Santa below (spitting image of the real thing, by the way). I felt ... numb ... and had an epiphany. Had I become a modern-day Ebeneezer Scrooge?

Yes, it's 2008 and times are tough, maybe not as tough as a Dickens novel, but the joie de vivre that usually encircles mall Santas and excessive amounts of eggnog thus far is completely lost on me. This holiday season, I've felt an encroaching sense of acerbity about the whole affair, and if you can believe it, it's not the "gift giving" aspect that bothers me. After all, it's usually what conjures up a bitter tang on most people's palettes.

I'm not exactly sure why this year feels so different, but my guess is that for many there isn't that much to be cheerful about. It's one thing to read daily statistics about those who have been laid off across the country or have lost homes, but it's quite another to be able to count those close to you who barely have enough money to pay their cell phone bills.

The fear and uncertainty in the air is palpable. Many are hanging on by a frayed thread, thankful just to get by these days, much less to replicate a Normal Rockwell painting set around a cozy Christmas tree buttressed by piles of beautifully wrapped presents.

In recent years past, those that struggled were in the minority. Since the early '90s, the United States has seen enormous gains based on mortgage-backed securities -- our finances expanded by people packaging and selling them to other countries. Now, there's a fear that all those gains we've built in that last 20 years will simply vanish. The giant strides in growth we've seen are crumbling as I lament about the very problem, and just when we think we've hit a bottom, that things have to bounce back, they in fact get worse.

And forget it only affecting the finance sector. Sure, hedge fund managers, investment bankers and the Gordon Gekkos of the world may have had their 15 minutes of fame nancing down Wall Street in private towncars and Armani suits, but they're just the first domino to topple the rest in this scheme. Now thousands, in all sectors, are feeling the heat. Tourism, hotels, automobiles, manufacturing, education, anything related to real estate (including construction), leisure, restaurants, marketing/PR firms, publishing. There isn't one entity that hasn't been touched on one level or another by the crash of dominoes as they continue to fall across the country.

Sure, we'll eventually pick up the pieces as a nation and begin back where we started, before we enjoyed and expected lives based on unrealistic illusions. But the reality is oppressive and heavy, and it's unsettling that we're on the precipice of a possible deflationary cycle -- that all the money many have put into homes as equity will disappear, and that just when we think things will turn around, they don't.

I guess it's the Scrooge in me that's unable to accept this holiday season. Surprisingly,
this motivates me more to buy gifts for all the people I care about. In the past I always bought more for myself than others. I know, it's selfish, and while I did buy people things, it was always a one-for-them,-three-for-me scenario. "Christmas isn't about giving gifts, that's so materialistic," I would pontificate between episodes of Sex and the City. Riiiiiiight. . .

Now that I've found myself in a better financial position than most, it makes me happy to be able to brighten someone's day with a present that they wouldn't (or couldn't) otherwise buy. In fact, I get ten times more happiness doing this than buying anything for myself. I guess that's what it takes to find the true spirit of the holiday season. Yes, it's about giving -- within your means, of course -- and making others happy, even if you can't give a lot. Cheesy? Maybe. But it's interesting that it takes a collapse of fantastic extremes to be able to truly evaluate the state of things and cut away all the muck and static that usually blinds so many of us at the end of every year.


Carrie said...

The instinct behind gifting is the secular beauty of Christmas that I have always loved -- the desire to delight those you love in unexpected ways. That doesn't become impossible when times get comparatively tough. I'm thinking of Christmases in "Little House on the Prairie" or in Anne Frank's annex -- no matter how broke we are, we always try to come up with something to delight those we love at Christmas.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you are coming from. We wrote a similar post on our blog a few days ago. The good news is that we may focus more on what is really important. Instead of spending money on (sometimes unwanted) gifts we use our budget to spend time with friends and family. We know that our time and presence is the best gift we can give our parents. Happy Holidays all!

Deborah Johnson said...

This year has been tough because of the death of my grandmother (it doesn't feel like Christmas without her) and the economic situation.

Instead of focusing on gifts, I'm focusing my energies on spending time with family and friends and being grateful for that time together.

Budget Mama said...

Christmas is my favorite holiday and I'm very excited this year. I know the economy is bleak but I have a wonderful family a great son and just tons of cheer for some reason. I even bought my ex a gift (granted it was only $3 bucks, but still).

Tonight we are having a tree trimming party. Late in the month but my parents only arrive into town today. I did have the lights on the tree already, but the ornaments will be hung tonight. This is the first year DS is interested!

I'm just happy to have family around. The gifts are not the important thing. It's the traditions and family... and health.

FB @ said...

I don't do the gift thing. I only do the dinners out WITH friends thing because it jives with my minimalism lifestyle because it means less stuff that people buy for me and less I have to buy for them.

I'd rather spend it on food to share good times together and memories.

Anonymous said...

It took a lot to get me in the Christmas spirit this year. What really helped was doing up my friend's tree the weekend before, and then going away - far away from the epicenter of the economic crisis that is Wall Street. It also helps that my destination was Winter Wonderland, aka Aspen. So beautiful just to look at all the snow on everything, watching it fall, seeing everything lit up, and even just hanging at the restaurant where my sister and her bf work, drinking cider or coffee or whatever. In other words, I didn't catch the Christmas spirit until December 20, which is about a month later than usual.

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