He loves the dramatic, and he’s right that the luster of Christmas, in the material sense, will doubtless be dimmed this season as shoppers cut back as they stare into the maw of a long, protracted period of economic churlishness. But I’m struck more than anything at this festive time of year by how many people have been and always will be children of a depression, now finally getting their chance to shine, and how many people who don’t even know it are showing us the way to scrimp and save.
Los Angeles has never been a Christmas town. It’s warm and pleasant; its streets are crowded with cars even on Christmas morning.
It’s a diverse community, an often atheistic or religiously apathetic place where the spiritual trappings of the day are lost in favor of the quotidian – not bad, necessarily, if the emphasis remains on family rather than on which store has the best return policy – and remains a city ideally suited for holiday seasons like this one, where flexibility is the name of the game.
As we fall into the Bush Depression, an economic cataclysm not seen in 80 years, we as a country have little experience or frame of reference for how to respond. Americans have for so long lived outside of their means that “cutting back” and “sacrificing” during a time of need is an utterly foreign concept.
Sure, we can downgrade from the three-DVD-a-month Netflix subscription to a Dickensian two. Yes, we can put off one trip to Starbucks per week. Right now, the brunt of the Bush Depression is being shouldered heavily by specific portions of our society: those who took dubious home financing, those small business owners who cannot apply for a loan in a credit-strapped banking system, retail and service sectors that depend on disposable income.
But the downturn in the financial markets also affects the savings of millions upon millions more. People who, unlike the breadliners of the ’30s, still have a home and food on the table but have seen their life’s work – retirement, college fund, health insurance kitty, rainy day fund – evaporate.
Clearly, when you are hungry and have no food, you take any job you can find and stand in line for bread. When you have a job and a home and are still immensely unsure of your future, the path of subsistence living in times of crisis is more difficult to judge. Should we donate less to Salvation Army bell-ringers outside stores? More? Should we stuff cash in our mattresses or ride it out?
In this holiday season, let’s start by taking a lesson from Los Angeles, the capital of the flexible holiday. Here, people celebrate the season regardless of creed and in spite of a paucity of traditional Christmas ornamentation. No snow, bare few carolers, palm tree Christmas trees, New Year’s Eve on the sand of the beach.
This year, it has to be out with the traditional across the country. Take that L.A. philosophy and apply it everywhere: You don’t need the huge tree you always get, you don’t need that fancy meal out at your favorite place on Christmas Eve. Hold off on the new TV even though you promised you’d get one this year, stay close to home and Skype with family across the country.
This is a new depression for a new age, and we must establish fresh and effective means of making ends meet. Los Angeles has never been and will never be a model for simplicity or frugality, but I respect its capacity for flexibility, embracing the ideal that there is no one way to celebrate the season. It’s time to take the SoCal process and make it fit a new, decidedly un-SoCal philosophy.
My dad, I think, has always wanted to be in a depression. He’s thrifty, loves going without and his favorite meal is, I kid you not, grits. He’s a man out of time, pure Horatio Alger (minus, of course, the pederasty and odd relationship with an older male benefactor), and he loves blaming everything on the Bush Depression while it validates a lifetime of prudent parsimony.
He’s a boxcar prince now, ready for the worst without ever having to say I told you so to me, the squanderer who once made the foolish suggestion of buying new shoes when my current soles weren’t worn out yet.
I’m learning, as we all are, how best to get by now. You can tell that it’s a different time: I’m saying my dad wasn’t completely crazy for all those years and that Los Angeles has something to offer the country on its road to improved, focused frugality. Strange days, indeed.