Yesterday's stocking stuffers - coal or oranges?

One of the most amusing stocking stuffers this Christmas can be found in a salvage store west of Boston called Building 19. There, in Aisle 5, next to a cardboard fireplace decorated with stockings, stands a pile of coal. For 10 cents a lump, shoppers can buy a reminder of leaner holidays earlier in the century, when coal supposedly served as a seasonal rebuke to errant children.

Last weekend, two silver-haired women standing in front of the coal laughed and bought a few lumps for joke gifts. One said, "My mother always warned us about this before Christmas."

The store's owner, "Ol' Man Ellis," offers a similar explanation in a humorous newspaper flier. He writes, "In my day, if children didn't behave themselves, all they got in their Christmas stocking was a lump of coal." (Good children were rewarded with the luxury of an orange.)

Ah, the joys of Christmases Past.

Continuing his mock-curmudgeon act, "Ol' Man Ellis" good-naturedly teases today's indulgent parents who "stand in line for hours so they can shower the insolent ingrates with expensive gifts! Rock-and-roll music and violent video games! Dangerous skateboards and spooky little hairy robots!"

As if to illustrate his point, the same Sunday paper that includes the Building 19 ads also carries a toy-store flier, this one telling a story of Christmas Present. Credit cards in hand, parents can fill shopping carts with everything from a $29.97 Amazing Amy doll ("she says over 15,000 phrases to respond to her mommy's actions") to a $209.99 Power Wheels Xtreme Machine, an off-road vehicle for ages 3 and up. Then there's the $89.99 e-mail kit for the 8-and-up set, plus $59.99 video games. What a contrast to the orange-in-a-stocking era!

There may be no faster way to get children rolling their eyes and sighing deeply than to utter the words, "In my day..." or "When I was your age..." Every generation has its own definition of hardship. In the past, grandparents' tales of walking six miles - or was it 10? - to school in snowstorms competed with stories of rising at 3 a.m. to help with chores.

In the future, a new generation of grandparents can treat grandchildren to their own tales of simpler times. "When I was your age," they might begin, "we had only one television set. It was black and white, and there was no remote. If we wanted to change channels - there were only three - we had to walk over to the set. We also had only one telephone."

Imagine the response: "Only one TV! And one phone! Were you poor?" "Not at all," the grandparents will reply, smiling. "That's the way most people lived back then, in the Dark Ages before cell phones and computers."

Those of us whose parents and grandparents lived through the Depression have heard firsthand their stories of hardship and deprivation, told matter-of-factly and without self-pity. But for the children following, who barely know what coal looks like and for whom the Depression is little more than a page in a history textbook, the idea of such austerity and hard times, including such modest Christmases, defies imagination.

As the economy continues its robust march, a sense of entitlement runs strong. It has become our civic duty to shop till we drop, and to spend, spend, spend. The day after Thanksgiving, merchants held hopeful fingers to the wind, trying to estimate what their cash registers will ring up in holiday sales. This year's figures for November and December could reach a record $184 billion.

Where would the economy be if most people lived within their means, or even below, the way some grandparents of the orange-in-your-stocking generation still do?

No one wants a return to the lean times of the past. But in the midst of sustained prosperity, all age groups, especially those of us in the post-coal generations, could do worse this holiday than to reflect on a hard, dusty black lump. It remains a reality check, a humbling reminder of an earlier generation's modest beginning, and a symbol of a century's considerable progress.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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