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The Spectacle Under the Tree


Black Friday was a bit of a bust for the retail industry this year. Some economists actually wondered whether we've actually reached the point where so many once-middle class Americans are actually working in the big box stores, that there aren't enough left to adequately patronize them. There may be some truth in that, though at least part of me was hopeful that Americans are finally wising up to the fact that there's no law requiring them to blow a month's pay putting a gazillion plastic toys under the tree.

Then again, 20 MCSO deputies had to be dispersed yesterday morning, when the Champs Sports in the DeSoto Mall decided against opening its doors, noting that there was a crowd of around 500 waiting to buy a very limited number of the newest Air Jordans, which were about to go on sale. There had already been riots in other cities. Upon hearing the announcement, would-be shoppers became unruly, pushing and banging on the security gate and demanding entrance.

For $185, you can apparently get (or not get in this case), a pair of sneakers that are made in sweat shops in places like China, Indonesia and Vietnam. No wonder there's a trade imbalance. Also, I had no idea there were so many people in town positioned to drop that kind of cash on a pair of sneaks.

Don't get me wrong, Christmas is my favorite time of the year – hands down. I'm not religious, and I don't shop the malls, but I absolutely treasure that temporary feeling of hope and promise that comes from seeing mankind at its best, even if just for a short time (the Jordan shoppers notwithstanding). I'll admit that as an escapee from the north, it took a bit to get used to the whole tropical Christmas thing, but these days, I don't mind at all dipping my toes in the water on Christmas Day or seeing white lights strung from a palm tree – something that seemed an abomination when I moved here 12 years ago.

Nonetheless, I've never went in for the big, toy smorgasbord that puts many people into hock through the winter months. I know that as Americans, we're taught from the time we are born that – slogans about giving aside – Christmas is a time of consumption; a time of Christmas wish lists, letters to Santa detailing our every lust, etc.

As we grow older, images of red bows on shiny cars, sparkling holiday-themed jewelry and other ways to blow out our savings accounts in order to feed the retail machine take over, but again, it's never been my cup of tea. My background in economics – whether a blessing or a curse, depending on who you ask – leaves me perpetually calculating the marginal rate of utility to such a degree that impulse purchases rarely make it into the cart. They're too often reduced to their sum total worth – plastic, cheap metal alloys, child labor, sky-high mark-ups and a few hours of distraction from something more worthy of my attention.

Having a child didn't change that. The budget for my son's Christmas presents remains a fixed $150 – so needless to say, there won't be any Jordans under the tree. There is also no Christmas list, no gotta haves and there is certainly no disappointment. I go out of my way to be thoughtful, creative and full of surprises – none of which need be expensive provided you've got even a bit of imagination.

We have also cultivated two traditions which I feel help us both to keep a bit of perspective. Each year, my son and I match funds from our savings to buy a present for a child who has less. Whether it be Toys for Tots or a similar drive, having him go into a store decked out with want-want-want stimuli, choose a gift for someone he doesn't know, and go through the line and pay for it with his own money seems to instill a good deal of pride, which I detect by the look on his face when he drops it in the donation box later.

The other is that on the Christmas mornings that I have him, or the last weekend before Christmas if it's his mother's year, we spend some time helping those with less, and we do it before we play with what's under the tree. Taking some time to feed homeless people in a park whose only tree is the one they slept under the night before – well, it has a way of delivering a heavy dose of perspective, one that makes you enjoy the blessings of the holidays in a whole new light.

Christmas can mean different things to different people, and I certainly don't want to preach to anyone about how to spend it. However, I do hear many, many folks tell me that they are tired of our culture of consumerism, tired of scenes like the one at our mall and tired of everyone thinking that the only things important in life are those which we can buy.

Yet if we continue to teach our children every year that it is essential to go into holiday hawk and be broke until the tax return comes, just so they can have the latest video game system – the one that costs as much as a month's worth of groceries – then we can hardly blame them when they fall into the same traps as adults. If we want them to grow up to appreciate the things of true value, then we need to find better ways to light up their faces than creating a giant, plastic spectacle under the Christmas tree.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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