Many of us already had enough stuff

The Baltimore Sun

If the predictions were on target, at this very moment you are suffering through a Christmas that is almost 29 percent less merry than last year. In fact, it will be the least merry Christmas since 1999, so you might as well go back to bed and sleep through it.

I base my calculations on a recent Gallup poll that found that Americans on the average planned to spend about 29 percent less on Christmas presents this year - $616 rather than last year's $866, the lowest figure since the pollster started asking the question in its annual survey.

Let's leave aside the fact that what Americans say they're planning to spend always turns out to be less than what they actually end up spending - which may help explain how we ended up in the whole credit-based mess that we're currently in.

But as I've listened to the dire reports that have been coming in from the shopping front these past couple of weeks, issued in the grave tone normally reserved for speaking about the terminally ill, I have to resist the urge to react with Scrooge-like delight to this turn of events.

Fewer ch-ch-ch-Chia pets under the tree? Fewer scented candles, deafening video games, itchy sweaters and those tiny Barbie accessories that always end up underfoot - is this not a good thing?

Apparently not, as we're assaulted every holiday season with the message that more spending equals more merriment. It's the most successful marketing campaign since that advertising genius came up with the instructions, "lather, rinse, repeat."

It's not that I personally don't shop, buy, repeat - I enthusiastically give gifts and even more gleefully receive them. I'm anticipating the riotous ripping of wrapping paper today, and watching my personal stack rise vis a vis the competition. I mean, my beloved family members.

But this year, all those grim reports of less holiday spending don't strike me as tragic. People losing their jobs, homes, retirement savings? People cutting pills in half to make their prescriptions last longer, having to go to the food pantry because they can't afford groceries? That's tragic.

Not to dismiss the less-than-tragic but more-than-trivial effects of the recession, but if the economic meltdown makes people think a little more critically about what and how much they buy, well, that's probably a reality check that we all could use. If this year's holidays happen to shift the focus from the material joys to the kind that come without a price tag, is that so bad?

Maybe I can say this only because I'm coming from a place of comfort - it's easy to dial back the shopping when you already have pretty much everything you need. That's "need," of course, not "want," and I am as covetous as anyone in the face of all those shiny, new things out there. But I'm guessing that even in the midst of the economic downturn, most of us find ourselves in a place of having, if not everything, then enough - for now, at least, and in a way, the anxiety over holiday shopping this year reflects the fears of what is to come rather than any current deprivation. We just don't know what next year holds.

You could even argue that spending less right now is entirely rational behavior - if all around you people are losing their jobs and entire industries are begging for bailouts, the whole idea that shopping is our patriotic duty seems even more of a sucker's deal. Right now, the economic picture is so muddled, and the directives we get seem equally unclear and even contradictory - Americans don't save enough! Americans don't spend enough! - it's no wonder some of us have hunkered down, a death grip on our wallets.

Call me a cynic, but I wouldn't be surprised if, when all the receipts are in, it turns out that most people woke up today to some pretty nice gifts. Maybe shoppers spent less, or maybe they just spent more thoughtfully. Despite all the gloomy expectations, for example, consumers spent more on this past Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that kicks off the holiday shopping season, than they did a year ago. That may not have held up as the weeks went on, and groups like the International Council of Shopping Centers are warning that stores may post their worst holiday sales ever - or at least, the worst in the nearly 40 years that it has tracked such data.

But, really, what happened to all that stuff they did sell us, during all those boom years?

If your closets are anything like mine, some of that stuff is probably still hiding in there, in its original packaging, bought but unused. It's no wonder that one of the boom industries in recent years has been in those self-storage rental units.

I was tempted this year, when I saw that one of my sisters had something on her wish list that someone had given me some years back, but that I never got around to using. In the spirit of this anxiety-ridden holiday season, I would have re-wrapped it and given it with a smile, but hers wasn't the name I picked in the family gift exchange.

In that same closet, though, I also found a pink tutu that I'd bought for a ballet-crazed niece maybe four Christmases ago but forgot to ever give her. Luckily, she has a little sister, who is just about the right size for it now. Ah, one small step for the national economy, perhaps, but a giant leap toward emptying closets rather than wallets.

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