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Christmas in the Red

by Lawerence Dugan Nichols Together we make up a consumer culture, and everywhere you look there are nonessential commodities for sale. Each Christmas, Americans purchase billions of dollars worth of these for gift-giving. Meanwhile, stores pump out carols over the loudspeakers, adorn the walls with wreaths, and hold special sales the day after Thanksgiving.  But this year, with the economy in shambles, will ordinary people spend less money during the holidays? Will they skimp on presents, or opt out of travel expenses?  This month, the Currents decided to find out if the space beneath the Christmas trees of Riverwest would be a bit barer this year. We asked people if the precarious state of the economy was affecting them, and if it would cause them to spend less on presents – much to the chagrin of kids everywhere.   Kelly Kirshtner, a film professor at UWM, has an interesting story regarding Christmas and the tough economic times of late. For years her family engaged in what she refers to as “backroom Christmas politics” in which siblings who were appreciated more than others received extra presents in secret on Christmas Eve. The following morning, as everyone opened gifts as a group, it appeared as though everyone received an equal amount. But the dire economic situation this year has prohibited the secret practice of extra gift-giving, so Kelly came up with a better plan.  To save money this year, Kelly wrote up a contract and sent it to all her family members. It decreed that if one were to get her a gift, it had to  cost less than $20. Although she had to pay $300 for a plane ticket home to Los Angeles, she offset the cost by bringing gifts to her family that cost very little indeed. In an act of Christmastime ingenuity, Kelly asked everyone what their favorite food was, then filmed herself making the dish in a step-bystep documentary. Her mom, for instance, likes crepes, so without missing a beat Kelly dressed up like a 1960s Julia Child to teach her how to flip them carefully in the pan. The family can expect more customized DVDs to come.  Mark Zitzer has a keen understanding of the economy, as he has operated the Eastside skateboard shop Phase II for some twenty years. He’s seen his business take a slight hit and has opted to spend money more thriftily this year.  Sean Drews, a young photographer, has made the decision to save some cash when it comes to presents.  “I think what I’m going to do this year is start re-gifting or gifting things that I already have around my house.” He went on to describe the current economic times as “tough.”  Steve of the hip-hop group Chalice in the Palace has noticed a major change this year too. “Everybody’s looking for a sale or deal now; everyone asks how much something is first before buying it.” He passes out tickets and fliers for upcoming shows and events, and said that a lot of concerts were not selling lately. He thinks that the only thing that will get people out are drink specials, for which Pabst is the most notorious.  Steve also said that thrift stores are packed now, and that “people are shopping in them like they were the mall.” He also claimed that Aldi’s, the discount grocery store, is seeing a lot more customers. “I’m out there watching the scenery,” Steve concluded, “and you can tell that people are hurting.”   A few people we interviewed had the similar idea of making gifts for Christmas instead of buying them. Patrick Connelly, a UWM film student, said that he was making crafts for his friends this year, even though his income has remained steady throughout the turbulent times.  Riverwest resident Dane Haman also said that he’d make his friends things for the holidays. He paints, draws, and fashions things together. He could just as easily buy things though, since the current dip in gas prices has left a bit more cash in his back pocket. As a school photographer, he needs to drive all over the southern portion of the state, but recently he has not been hurting.  “I pre-paid twenty bucks at a gas station yesterday, and the pump stopped at $18.55. That was the first time in like forever that I could fill my tank all the way.”  Another Riverwest resident and UWM film student Jonah Whipp has concerns, not over gift-giving but his mom’s economic standing. She has been trying to sell her house for a while now, but no one is willing to buy it. “I’m worried that she’ll have to take out a loan to fix it up and bring it up to code and then try to sell it. The economy is forcing her to make a pretty drastic decision.” To make matters worse, Jonah said that his mom loves the holidays, but with less money she won’t be able to celebrate them how she wishes. This leads her to become depressed. On top of worrying about his family, Jonah also mentioned that he was eating much cheaper food.   Lindsay DeGroot, a Riverwest waitress, would second that concern since she noticed the price of food going way up. Fortunately though, she said that she typically does not buy presents because her family back in Appleton does not celebrate Christmas all that traditionally.  Trevor Berman, another UWM student, explained that he was more or less an authority on retail and sales, as he had worked in that environment for many years. “Christmas is a holiday that’s been thoroughly debased, and it’s meant to fleece people of their money on whatever the latest gadget is. It’s also commercialized before Halloween even ends, and it’s so bad that there’s not even a nod to Thanksgiving anymore.”  Trevor claimed that the producers, manufacturers, companies, and ad agencies had all tried to force Christmas down his throat to the point where it’s left a bad taste in his mouth. This year, he wants to get back to the basics of the holiday.  “I personally don’t have a lot of money to buy gifts, so I want to get back to the tradition where people try to show others how much they care, and not how much they can spend.”  Trevor uniquely offers his family members the gift of labor rather than tangible gifts. He said that he would paint a room for his mom and clean out the garage for his dad in order to stop supporting the consumerist society.  Essentially all of the people we asked were affected by the economic downturn or knew someone who was. This is not all that surprising considering that the economy was the number one voter concern during the recent election. The $700 billion bailout may not have been directed at the good people interviewed here, but perhaps their troubles will be alleviated after the holidays, and into next year, when another stimulus check might have their name in it.