Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Long, Cold Christmas

My morning commute these days takes me through a shopping center; the train lets me off underneath it. It's been Christmas in the mall since the first day of November. That's no surprise. Christmas has become the crutch our retail economy leans on. Many stores run in the red for eleven months and see Christmas put them in the black for the year. A bad year calls for a big Christmas, and a string of bad years calls for bigger and bigger Christmases. If shoppers don't keep finding more and more money for Christmas presents, the whole economy shrinks. It doesn't sound sustainable, but I don't blame local merchants for wanting to start Christmas early and hoping to extend that sweet jolt of retail steroid. We are out of other ideas.

Part of the shopping center was once a department store, famous in our area and featured in a well-known Christmas movie. People in this city are enormously proud of that movie, and proud that it was shot here. I have been urged, while standing in check out lines, to visit the house where many of the film's family scenes were filmed. We don't have too many other things to be proud of. But the store shown in the movie has not a department store for many years; it closed before I came to this city. Still, the store windows have traditional Christmas window displays, all Dickensian scenery and nodding, grinning mechanized dolls. We will go through the motions of Yuletide joy. But there are no children's toys in the space beyond those windows. Last year the old department store became a casino.

The casino's advertising mixes with the lights and Christmas wreaths and the carols piped onto the sidewalk. Gamblers stand outside, smoking. It's hard to see anyone who looks like a high roller. Most of the gamblers seem lower-middle-class, hard working people come to gamble. They are not on vacation, and this is not a resort. The casino's posters are pathetic come-ons, designed to flatter the gamblers that they are daring and glamorous: "Risk Takers Wanted" and "We Turn Gamblers Into Legends." I never see anyone who looks like a legend, and I find the posters sad. No one should be played for a sucker so plainly and publicly. Nobody's self-deceptions should be used to con them in the public square.

We have been voting whether to allow this casino ever since I arrived in this city. It feels like I have voted against it every two or four years. The casino was always voted down until 2012. The long, sluggish recession finally made it impossible for the rest of the voters to say no. We had to do something, anything, to bring some money back to downtown. We are out of other ideas.

Christmas is a cold season, and it gets longer every year. The only part of Christmas that never starts any earlier is charity. The lights are on commercial trees and the seasonal music is on the radio long before the Salvation Army appears. People ask you to spend early and often. They're slower about asking to give. Christmas charity still starts on the old schedule, reflecting older values. As for the rest, the bleaker things get, the more Christmas we all seem to need: more shiny lights and temporary discounts, more glossy commercials and easy sentiment. The harder it gets for everyone, the more we are prodded to celebrate and to spend. We watch endless fantasies of bleak, Dickensian London, and those not making sufficiently merry are told not to be like Scrooge. Most Americans are in no danger of being like Scrooge; saving too much of our enormous wealth is not really our big problem. We may be in a remake of A Christmas Carol, but we're not playing the lead. Instead it's the Bob Cratchits who are asked to be the founders of their employers' feasts, to spend money they don't have, to work themselves a year older but find themselves not an hour richer, all to leave an annual profit in the boss's stocking. Dickens's Scrooge finally vows to keep Christmas all year round; our Scrooges would probably do the same thing if they dared.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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