Keeping Christmas

Posted on December 23, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

The outburst is now a notorious one.

“What’s Christmastime to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?”

Ebenezer Scrooge, his pre-haunted Christmas cynicism still in full vigor, was upbraiding his nephew Fred for getting carried away with the merriment of the holiday in the opening pages of A Christmas Carol.

It’s something of a testament to human nature that, despite being almost 170 years old, Scrooge’s polemic not only still applies in our modern era, but is perhaps even more appropriate in the midst of our debt-laden megaconsumerism.

There’s little doubt that the U.S. economy could hardly do without Christmas. Retailers, specifically, bank heavily on the fourth quarter, and nearly every sector is affected by the spending spirit of the season.

The most popular gifts destined to find their way beneath trees this year include clothing, toys, electronics, foodstuffs and cosmetics. Nearly 60 percent of shoppers plan to give gift cards, with an average value of over $40.

Almost half of all gift-buyers will shop via the Internet this year, and the online portion of their overall shopping will reach a record-high 36 percent.

The commercialization of Black Friday achieved the most financial success ever this year. It was a $52 billion spending spree in which more than 150 million shoppers canvassed malls, shopping centers and main streets looking for holiday buys—and dropped an average of nearly $400 each over the weekend. Online Thanksgiving sales rose nearly 40 percent above last year.

All told, average personal holiday spending is expected to rise slightly this year to just over $700. For families with six-figure incomes, that figure doubles.

Online shoppers and those using credit cards will spend even more, and many—estimates range from 13 million upward—will be creating holiday debt that will follow them like a Dickensian specter into the New Year.

And while 86 percent of adults admit to believing in Santa as a child, six out of 10 shoppers don’t trust St. Nick or anyone else with their entire list, and plan to buy themselves something for Christmas.

It’s worth remembering at this budget-crunching time of year that Scrooge’s post-poltergeist liberality didn’t entice him to spend money he didn’t have on leisure gifts people didn’t really need.

The very first mercantile action he undertook after awakening from his night with the spirits was to make a bargain with a passing boy underneath his window. He promised the youngster a tip to go and fetch the prize goose at the nearby poulterer’s,and a bonus if he brought the bird back within five minutes.

Scrooge used that gift to brighten the holiday table of his clerk, sending it anonymously to the humble Cratchit household, where he had watched the poor family’s good cheer (despite their meager means) with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The next money Scrooge spent was a whispered pledge to the gentleman who had the day before solicited Scrooge’s generosity to help the poor and destitute. While we are never told the exact amount, its munificence rendered the recipient speechless, and Scrooge assured him there were a great many back-payments included in it.

The next gifts Scrooge dispersed were non-monetary: he went to church, then walked the streets, giving nods and smiles to passers-by, pats on the head to children and beggars a chance to talk with him. In short, he gave his attention to things he had ignored before, and found that each of them yielded him happiness.

At last on that Christmas Day, he gave in to his nephew’s wish and invitation and joined Fred and his wife for dinner.

The next day, before raising Bob Cratchit’s salary, Scrooge also gave his employee something else: a practical joke. He hurried lightheartedly to get to the office early, so he could catch Bob coming in late and pretend to be his old self about the tardiness.

Finally, because Scrooge said he wanted to assist Bob’s struggling family and since Tiny Tim did not die, he clearly intervened medically on the child’s behalf.

The critical point of Scrooge’s transformation is not merely that he went from being miserly to being generous in general, but that he sought to use his resources for good.

When viewed only through the prism of dollarized delirium or church state chicanery, it’s often all too easy to forget that Christmas is a season that celebrates goodness.

It scarcely brings out the best in any of us to squabble sillily over whether a bulletin-board nativity scene posted by a public teacher constitutes a federal establishment of religion. Will there next be a campaign to pull down Declaration of Independence posters because it establishes Creationism?

Dickens rightly condemned the falsely pious, but demonstrated in timeless fashion that the holiday’s capacity for good—the year-long keeping of Christmas—makes it unique among all others.

May you have a (reformed) Scrooge Christmas!

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