Christmas in the Red

One Christmas, when I was about eight years old and the economy was good, my parents took me to the mall. They’d run out of creative ideas, so they decided to let me pick out my own gifts. They said Santa gave them the go-ahead.


I scoured the toy store shelves for the best dolls and contraptions before selecting about five items. As we were leaving, I gave my dad some suggestions for the next store we should hit up. He said, "This is it. You picked all your gifts."

I was appalled. This wasn’t nearly the number of wrapped presents under the Christmas trees on TV and in the movies. I complained and wailed, red-faced with tears streaming down my cheeks.

My dad was nice at first, telling me to calm down—but then he got angry. A janitor walked by, rolling a dumpster along. My dad took the bag of toys and threw them in. I didn’t stop crying, but in an instant I learned the lesson of the haves and have-nots.

A couple of decades later, the holiday season looks very different. The government passed a bailout package for Wall Street. Now the American auto industry is looking for one. November unemployment numbers are at their highest in 34 years with nearly 533,000 jobs slashed. And it’s finally official: We’re in a recession. In fact, we’ve been in a recession for a year. Almost everyone is taking a hit and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Now that we’re in the holiday season, the business that comes along with it is next to feel the pain of this economy. And even Santa isn’t exempt.

Joanne Winkler is with Chicagofun.com, an event planning company.  Her customers range from corporations and schools to communities and individual families. She says every year they’re busy filling up Santa Claus’ calendar. Reservations are made months in advance.

"Usually what we’re looking at is a Santa who surprises everybody when he shows up and maybe distributes some gifts," she says. "If there are children involved, they’ll sing some songs and meet with each child and give them a gift."

But this year is looking grim. The company’s already received some cancellations. Typically, you’ll spot the the jolly fat mansitting in a mall, but the sightings might be less this year. Winkler says at least one mall dropped its reservation on Santa, live reindeer and roaming carolers.

She says the company is struggling to hold on to their loyal holiday customers. They’ve been negotiating with people and their budgets to somehow keep Chicagofun.com a line item. Winkler knows the company won’t be as profitable, but they can at least offer cheaper options.

"People have cut back on the length of the visit where Santa would go for three, four or five hours," she says. "But now we’re seeing people cutting back to an hour or two. Santa would maybe sing a song with the kids before moving on."

The event planning company has always been serious about their Santas: they’re all background checked, authentically bearded and embody the Christmas spirit. But this year, Winkler says, they are preparing their Santas for a tough season. It’s important that they understand the current situation and handle children’s wants with care.

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"We just had a conversation about what to say when a child asks for something that’s expensive that perhaps their parents can’t afford," Winkler says. "And it was agreed that Santa would say, ‘I’ll do my best’ and ‘we’ll see.’"

Winkler and her team of St. Nicks might not have to worry about too many extravagant requests. The U.S. Post Office says the thousands of Santa letters they receive each holiday are taking on a sadder tone this year.

Instead of the usual video game systems, kids are asking for necessities like clothing. Some are even asking for help with parents’ lost jobs and bills piled up at home.

Even though it’s sad, there’s also something touching in those letters. Unlike the temper tantrum kid at the mall, some of these children really understand the celebration of Christmas and making sacrifices without someone having to teach them a lesson. (Giving up toys is a small sacrifice, but a sacrifice nonetheless.) It’s about love and putting others before your self.

In the end, the janitor at the mall fished the toy store bag out of the trash and handed it back to my dad with a smile. I was completely embarrassed. It wasn’t so much the scene I had caused, but more like coming to the realization that I was being ungrateful for things that were given to me as gifts. My parents didn’t deserve that, and I knew it. As silly as it sounds, I appreciated the dolls I got that Christmas more than any others before.

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