Just when it seemed that the holiday shopping frenzy couldn't start earlier or get more frenzied, some retailers decided to prove that it could.
When a suburban Boston toy store opened at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, more than 100 customers were waiting in the cold November darkness. Other impatient shoppers lined up at 6 a.m. at a nearby outlet mall. Like racehorses out of the gate, these thoroughbred shoppers joined 67 million Americans who jammed malls last weekend, spending 10 percent more, on average, than last year.
Call it the spirit of Christmas Rich and take it as a measure of ongoing prosperity. For weeks, glossy catalogs have been filling mailboxes, enticing consumers with a tantalizing array of upscale baubles and gizmos to buy for relatives and friends whose bulging closets and attics already attest to consumer overload.
Sharing space in those crowded mailboxes is another kind of seasonal message, far from glossy and affluent. This one, from charities, food banks, and rescue missions, takes the form of quiet but urgent appeals for money to help those who are hungry or cold or have no place to lay their head.
Call it the reality of Christmas Poor. More than 11 percent of Americans still live in poverty.
Unlike Christmas Rich, which is colorful and sometimes brash, Christmas Poor is meek and low-key. It takes the form of modest collection bins for toys and canned goods. It also appears as red kettles on street corners, where bell-ringers stamp their feet against the chill and offer a grateful "God bless" to those reaching in their pockets for dollars or quarters.
The challenge of Christmas Poor has persisted through the ages. A century and a half ago, as Charles Dickens tells the tale, two "portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold," entered Ebenezer Scrooge's office the day before Christmas with a request.
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," one says, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
He goes on to explain that "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices."
Scrooge sputters that other people's problems are not his business. The two men leave empty-handed.
So much for a generous heart.
Today, the good news is that charitable giving is up. But then there's the not-so-good news. Scattered food pantries around the country report that their cupboards are nearly bare these days. They attribute the shortage to reduced donations from food manufacturers and retailers.
In addition, traditional charities are finding it necessary to modernize their approach in order to compete. Even the Salvation Army has updated its collections with an online donation system: www.salvationarmy.org.
Still, as charities seek to narrow the gap between Want and Abundance, they will continue to find a need for red kettles on street corners, and collection bins for toys and food. These low-tech devices serve as visible reminders of the importance of helping those whose wish lists center on food and heat and shelter, and whose budgets allow only window-shopping.
Even the reformed Scrooge would probably make a contribution today.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society