Christmas Values

Richard Reeves

December 20, 1990|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK — New York.---THEY SAY this will be a ''disappointing'' Christmas. Perhaps, but I would not have guessed that bumping my way through the multilingual crowds around Rockefeller Center last Sunday night.

Looking up, finally, I was not disappointed at all with the great LTC and bright tree above the skating rink. I could not blame our Japanese partners for wanting to be shareholders in this American scene and enterprise.

But words such as ''disappointing'' and ''slow'' really have no connection to abstract things like beauty and laughter and the plain old spiritual joy of being alive and well and part of the festivities. The adjectives of Christmas are economic, a measure of how much money will be spent this year and of how many things will be bought and paid for or borrowed for in the United States' plastic economy.

With no malice toward merchants and a sure and sad sense that many of my countrymen, my neighbors, are suffering unfairly in recession, I don't think spending less money on fewer gifts is necessarily the worst thing that can happen in America.

You can have too much of a good thing. You can have too many good things. I'm not sure that the highest goal of the society should be to have a television set and VCR in every room, a disposable appliance for every task, a separate car for every errand, docked in $40-a-day parking places. The material merry-go-round, buying and having and disposing, can be fun and rewarding, too, but acquisition is neither patriotic duty nor fulfillment of the spirit. There is such a thing as ''enough.''

I am more sensitive to some of this than I was a few years ago. My 6-year-old daughter, born five days before Christmas in 1984, spent her first four years growing up in Europe, in Paris. Three years ago, we came home to New York for two weeks over Christmas. My wife and I wanted Fiona to see family and friends, let them see her, and for all of us to be part of an American Christmas.

We were soon exhausted. Poor Fiona was in a sort of consumer-shock, an American condition she had not experienced living in Paris. How many dolls and stuffed animals can a kid handle?

In Paris, her friends seemed to have a finite number of things. Ten toys, three dolls, three bunnies or bears or whatever. But there were no limits that season in New York. Suddenly she was getting about three bunnies an hour, day after day. It was wonderfully generous, and there are few fleeting pleasures nicer than giving gifts to a little girl.

But Fiona was having the 3-year-old version of a nervous breakdown. She would become a little frantic trying to take care of all her fuzzy new friends while stripping the wrapping off the next one, or staring numbly as more packages were plunked with great enthusiasm on her little lap.

We had forgotten some of the excess of American life. Fiona had never been in a country where it snowed teddy bears; for a time she lost all capacity to put a real value on anything.

America seemed out of control on ''value'' to us. People were buying things because they were there. I mean ''value'' here as how much actual ''things'' are worth, economic value rather than the ''family values'' preached by politicians who don't talk to their own children.

Our hometown, New York, was up for auction then, with young men and women making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on Wall Street, or even millions, bidding against each other for apartments, for cars and taxi services, for a place in the right restaurant or the right private school, or a country home in the right town on the beach. Value lost its meaning to one 3-year-old and to thousands and thousands of 30-year-olds.

Hard times stink -- at least they do for almost everybody but bankruptcy lawyers (formerly merger and acquisition lawyers) and others with cash on hand to grab up things suddenly undervalued and under-priced. But America did go a little crazy these past several years. If we learn nothing else from the 1980s, it will serve us well to understand looking at real estate prices that what goes up really can come down.

Even with the money drying up this Christmas -- or going to Japan and Germany and Arabia -- there is something to be said for relearning its value, and its place in a rich life. We went back to Paris that Christmas glad to escape for another year in a country where people had half the per capita income of Americans, had one television and maybe, if they were lucky, one car, but still seemed to be living better than the New Yorkers rushing home with their treasures.

This is a time for us to re-evaluate, in a literal sense of figuring out what things are really worth and what things are really worthwhile. Otherwise Christmas just reveals us as a people who work like Scrooge and try to spend like Donald Trump.

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