The gift of Christmas in a season that 'feels different'

On the surface, this is a December like any other: Tree-lighting ceremonies and "Messiah" sings dot cities. Tinny renditions of "Jingle Bells" echo through malls. Catalogs clutter desks, and newspapers fill with ads for gifts.

But ask a sampling of shoppers and acquaintances about the holidays, and you're likely to get answers that reflect a certain ambivalence. This season, some say, "feels different" in ways they have a hard time articulating.

The spirit of giving hasn't changed, but the cultural backdrop has. In the wake of Sept. 11 and an officially proclaimed recession, uncertainties abound. What to buy? What to give? How to celebrate? Questions about what's appropriate loom large.

Some of the confusion may stem from the odd juxtaposition of patriotic symbols and Christmas decorations. July Fourth meets Dec. 25th in suburban yards as American flags share space with holiday lights. One wreath sports a red-white-and-blue striped ribbon. Even hastily marketed tree ornaments reflect patriotic themes: the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, and a fireman's hat and a policeman's hat, both bearing flags.

Other forms of confusion are economic. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, observers began insisting that everything had changed forever. Even Christmas, some predicted, would be simpler, less materialistic.

But that was before leaders in Washington started urging Americans to spend, spend, spend to get the economy back on track. The day after Thanksgiving, economists began holding nervous fingers to the wind, measuring consumer confidence by the ringing of cash registers. Shopping now ranks as a patriotic duty. Uncle Sam wants you to stimulate the economy.

This kind of call for holiday spending can be traced all the way back to the depression of 1840. According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas," newspapers of the time argued that people "should spend to help get out of the depression." A New York paper, the Herald, editorialized that everyone, except those in "biting poverty," should buy a gift for the "one being that they love."

From the time that Christmas became a family holiday in the early 19th century, Mr. Nissenbaum says, it was a commercial holiday that played an active role in bringing about the modern consumer revolution.

"Christmas had always been a time of overdoing and overconsumption," Nissenbaum says. "Capitalists used Christmas as a way of introducing people to the idea that luxury spending was legitimate."

This year, on a December Saturday in suburban Boston, there are few signs of overspending. A salesman in one shop concedes that business is, well, "a little slow." Then he brightens and says, "All we need is a few Christmas specials on TV, and people will come out. Charlie Brown means Christmas."

Charlie Brown as a Christmas icon, a stimulus to the economy? Tell that to Alan Greenspan. In a year that "feels different," the solution may not be quite so simple.

Yet other salespeople share the clerk's optimism. The manager of a Christmas-tree lot run by a service organization has actually ordered more trees than usual. He says, "I think people will get in the Christmas spirit because of family values."

What kind of Christmas will prevail? The heavily commercial, excess-as-usual version? Or the scaled back, things-have-changed version? It's too early to tell. But one thing is sure: That hackneyed phrase, family values, suddenly seems less trite.

As consumers struggle to find a balance - spending enough to keep merchants happy while preserving a measure of simplicity - they face a challenge: how to turn a season that "feels different" into one that ends up actually being different in satisfying ways.

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