Having grown up Jewish, I never celebrated Christmas as anything more than a day to go to the movies, eat Chinese food and complain about all the stores being closed. Now that I'm married to a woman with a Catholic family I have to sandwich family events and Christmas dinner into the day, forcing me to drop the movie and eat the Chinese food fairly late at night.
Those traditions aside, I've never really thought much about the holiday other than it being a day off from work until I entered the world of retail. As the manager of a store, Christmas takes on an enormous importance in your life beginning months before the actual day.
In the retail world, the Christmas season cures your ills and pays your bills. A healthy month of December means you survive for another year and your continued viability trickles down to employees, vendors and everyone else touched by your business.
This year, due to the economic uncertainty in the country, most retailers have some fears about how well they might do in what should be their busiest season. With people losing their jobs, their homes and their retirement savings, just how much will they want to spend on gifts?
Despite this logical pessimism, I remain a foolish optimist. We have no money, our future looks bleak and the wolves appear to be howling at the door, but I believe we'll continue to act like everything is okay and somehow it will be.
While Santa Claus may have to lay off a few elves, negotiate givebacks with the reindeer union and switch to a store-brand beard conditioner, I imagine gifts will still appear under people's trees on Christmas morning. This might be wishful thinking from someone who runs a gigantic toy and hobby store or it might be a comment on America's unfailing optimism.
As a nation, even when we're battered and bruised, confused and scared, we still inherently believe that better days lie ahead. There may be no underlying logic for that belief, but most of us feel we will eventually come back even as the worst fates befall us.
Perhaps this comes from our birth as a country where we defeated a much more powerful enemy in order to gain our freedom. Maybe it's simply part of our national DNA or maybe we've all seen the Rocky movies too many times on cable TV, but most Americans have an inherent ability to get back up after they have been knocked down.
In some ways, spending money we don't exactly have to buy Christmas presents for kids who don't really need them shows an undying faith in our country. Many of us are broke, unemployed or under-employed and quite a few folks face home foreclosures, but Christmas will occur, at least for the kids, as regularly scheduled.
Somewhere between foolish and romantically optimistic, I prefer to take our commitment to buying stuff over the holiday season as a bet on our future. Things may look bad now, but we feel that the stock market will recover, jobs will come back and there will be better days.
Call me a financial patriot or a damned fool, but I truly believe that we can cure what ails us, fight back from the edge of defeat and return to the "good old days." I think most of us believe that and that's what keeps us going even when there seems to be no reason to carry on.
- Daniel B. Kline's work appears in more than 100 papers weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.