As holiday seasons go, this one already feels different.
Traffic in the malls and area stores is a bit lighter than usual, and the cash registers aren't ringing quite as often. There aren't quite as many houses decorated with Christmas lights. And Santa is making sure he doesn't promise too much when the kids in his lap spew out a list longer than mom and dad can handle.
The one place the lines are longer than at the cash registers is at the unemployment office, where many are still trying to find a job after being laid off, sometimes for months or years.
It's not exactly 1933, though. What passes for below-normal spending this year would put the stocking stuffers of a previous generation to shame. There are still quite a few iPods and plasma TVs being doled out and no shortage of commercials for luxury cars and jewelry, so somebody out there is getting more than a few oranges and some Tinker Toys.
Yet it's a Christmas that for a lot of us will be less focused on buying and more tuned into the spiritual and personal. For many, that's a change long overdue, even if it's a shame it took an economic recession to lead us to it.
Christmas, we learned long ago, doesn't come from a store. When the Whos in Whoville lost all their presents, they still gathered to sing praise to the true meaning of the day. It's a good time that we did, too.
We may have mouthed those same words over the years, but haven't always lived them. Now, with our credit cards already maxed and the prospect of heavy debt uninviting, we have a handy excuse. This is a time to think about things that matter and keep a holiday that has meaning, one that does not fit into a brightly-wrapped box.
With all that in mind, and the dogs of the recession snapping at our heels, it seems the ideal year to turn the corner on how we celebrate Christmas (and Hanukkah, which begins this week). We don't need to spend money to find meaning in the holiday. Who needs a lavish office party at a banquet hall when a potluck with homemade cookies will do? Do we want to face that January flood of bills for things none of us really needs?
These are the decisions many folks are making this year. In doing so, they might find that the simpler pleasures are more fulfilling than a roomful of expensive doo-dads. And it may be that when the economy turns around in years to come, we might not want to go back to celebrating Christmas as an annual shopping spree.
Of course, the less we spend, the more retailers, big and small, suffer, and that hurts the economy more and might cost others their jobs. So we have to make that choice, perhaps steering more of our business to local shops. Whatever we decide, it's clear that the conspicuous consumption of the past may well give way to a new sense of personal and civic responsibility.
It's also a time to see the glass as half full and count our blessings. While we may not have a full pile under the tree, many people have no pile at all, or a tree, or in some cases a home to keep them in.
Many have lost jobs and are more worried about food, shelter and other necessities than holiday baubles. We need to keep them in mind, now and all year long, and help the local food pantries and charitable agencies that are trying to meet their growing demand.
We've overcome tough times before as a community and as a nation, and we will rise above this economic crisis as well. Americans are a resilient lot. Take away something and we find a way to make do. Give us a problem and we find a way to turn it into an opportunity.
Such is the case this Christmas as we dial back the Bacchanalia of buying and harken back to a celebration of love, peace on earth and good will toward man.