Christmas is all about managing expectations

Posted: Monday, November 03, 2008

If America's mass-marketing machine has taught us anything, it's that it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas.

I've been hard at work on it for weeks. Hard at work convincing my family that this is the year for Christmas Lite. You know, Christmas without the trappings. Christmas without the gifts and the tree, the standing rib roast and the nice wine.

It's time to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. Or at least, it's time to rediscover how to remain solvent through the holiday season as the world economy crashes around us.

I'm serious.

Job security is a fantasy. The stock and housing markets are a wreck. Kmart is pushing layaway as the best way to save for gifts of sweatpants and Cheez Whiz.

I figure it's all about managing expectations. I gather my family around and explain that this year is going to be different. This year, it's home and hearth.

"Hey," I say. "What if we all make each other gifts? How about a plush sweater knitted from old fabric softener sheets? Or a casual bracelet made from an odd piece of rope? Or a nice rock?"

Maybe, I argue, we don't need gifts at all. "Remember the Whos, the ones down in Whoville? They had a heck of a Christmas - holding hands and singing in the town square - even after the Grinch jacked all their stuff."

No, in fact, my campaign isn't going well. I talk and my wonderful wife and darling daughters give me that look - that look like I've sprouted a second head.

But I press on, taking a page from the business book. We've all watched the big-business types lay the bad news on the line. Cold, uncaring, unvarnished.

"Family, we face an incredibly challenging economic environment," I begin. "As we head into the fourth quarter there is very little clarity. The outlook is cloudy. There is no reason to believe our cash position will improve and every reason to believe it will deteriorate. It is what it is."

Bailey, 14, and Riley, 10, sit twirling their fingers beside their temples. My wife, Alice, switches on "Dancing with the Stars."

Yet I know I'm right. And you know I'm right, too.

A recent Gallup Poll says more than a third of Americans say they plan to spend less this Christmas than they did last Christmas, and I'm determined to be among them. Only 9 percent plan to spend more. (Always nice to hear from the bailed-out bankers in the crowd.) And the rest are just fooling themselves.

Poll numbers haven't looked this bad going into the crazy-holiday-spending-frenzy since 1991. Retailers are practically quaking, worrying that the vital holiday season is going to be a big bust.

"I've got it! What if we combine Christmas and Thanksgiving this year?"

They're winter holidays, I argue, with a lot in common: family gathering, big meal, sports on TV, religious element. "We can call it Thanksmas," I say, "and we'll spend the day reflecting on how much stuff we already have and how we really don't need anything more."

The kids counter with "Christgiving." It would recognize the role of Christ, they say. And the role of giving, or better yet, receiving.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge shivering in the night, I'm left to visualize, to imagine Christmas 2008 as it might be.

I can almost see my girls, all pajama'd and giggly on Christmas morning. I smile warmly at Alice and hand her a small certificate.

"Hon," I coo. "You know that oil change you always wanted?"

I turn to our younger daughter. "And for you, Riley, that second round of orthodontia you've been dying for. That's right. More braces!"

"And Bailey. Look at you. In high school already. You know what I got you? A job. And the best thing? It's at 7-Eleven. They're open all night so you can go to school, get your homework done and then go to work."

Then it's down to the town square where we all join hands and sing.

• Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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