With the beginning of a new and brutal recession come new behaviors. If there is a bright side to tough times, it is clear that many people seem to be spontaneously thinking about those who will suffer disproportionally during this economic downturn. I am seeing this at work, where pleas for the United Way are more forceful and heartfelt than in years past. I am also encountering this phenomenon in unexpected circumstances. As “payment” for a recent martial arts training session organized by a friend here in Middletown, participants were told to bring canned food, which was subsequently delivered to a local shelter.
This is seemingly a time both for generosity and for “the new austerity.” And this makes sense for many reasons. My parents, who are retired, are feeling the pinch because they rely (as do many other people in their 70s and 80s) on IRA accounts that now generate more anguish than income. Where I work in Middletown, salaries have been frozen to make up for budget shortfalls. But comparatively speaking, we are lucky. Other friends and family members, who work in the arts or the financial industry, are more concerned about losing their job.
To consume (which is to say, to be a consumer) during such tough economic times often seems in bad taste. The scandal of the material becomes the most acute during the holiday season, of course. In our family, we have long felt like Christmas has gotten out of hand, particularly during “boom times.” Ten years ago, we abandoned the “every person gets a present” way of celebrating the holiday; instead, everybody gets a “person” to whom s/he gives a present. The booty under the tree has been cut down by ¾ and nobody complained, not even my two kids.
But this year, members of my extended family are discussing doing away with all presents. As I have suggested above, this is clearly an esthetic, moral, and financial decision. The “green” and “Zen” side of my mind is actually quite receptive to this idea. No presents means a beautiful emptiness: no plastic packages strewn about the floor, no crumpled wrapping paper, no mess, etc. At the same time, the portion of my brain that is more pragmatic and attached to my Middletown zipcode realizes that this is precisely the time when we should actually buy a few things.
What concerns me, in particular, is that people (like me) who are probably the most willing to give up holiday giving are also the most likely to frequent local shops. National behemoths like Wal-mart will weather this storm, perhaps quite nicely, but will local bookstores and small businesses? Going against much of what I have preached over the years, I plan to argue against a presentless Christmas. When negotiations commence today (around the turkey) I will make a forceful case for a locally purchased holiday.