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Great expectations

November 13, 2013

The crisp autumn air conjures up the delicious expectancy that characterized the months of November and December in my childhood. I recall my parents cooking the ritual Thanksgiving dishes, unchanged from year to year by family decree. These pleasures were followed by a flurry of activities—the Christmas tree, the food, school pageants, fruitcake baking and, of course, shopping. The extravagant department store displays made shopping an occasion that far outweighed the significance of what we bought. Our family gifts were usually things we needed anyway, but the season made them feel indulgent.

Grown up and on our own in New York, my husband and I gravitated to Thanksgiving as our favorite holiday. Without the stress of gift giving, it was the perfect time to slow down and invite friends to join us in a happy feast. It all seems very innocent now, because, as portrayed in the popular media, Thanksgiving has been high-jacked. What ought to be a day to contentedly count our blessings is now touted as a gladiatorial spectacle, the kick-off to a season of shopping stoked by relentless product hype and capped by a casualty report. Quick, get the dinner out of the way so we can head to the mall. The season of excess is upon us.

The constant drumbeat in the business news is that the “success” of the holiday season is measured by retail sales. Unfortunately, turkey dinner with all the trimmings just doesn’t pull its economic weight. The USDA estimates that the average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people costs about $49. Total spending on Thanksgiving dinner is about $2.37 billion year—chicken feed compared to the $584 billion Americans spent on Christmas in 2012.

It’s become a cliché that the Christmas shopping ads start earlier every year, but the reason is worth noting: early shoppers spend about 14% more than the average, according to the research compiled by, which also says about 68% of Americans spend all or part of their savings on Christmas presents, and that 17% of Americans will go into debt to pay for them.

George Carlin expressed it best: “Some people say the glass is half full. Some people say the glass is half empty. I say the glass is TOO BIG.”

Maybe we need to adjust our expectations, and to ask ourselves, what are we filling our glasses with? What thirst are we attempting to satisfy? Is it possible to replace quantity of “stuff” with quality of experience? What if we measured the success of the holiday season by how fully stocked the food pantries are? By how many people volunteer in their communities? By how many fewer Americans are homeless, hungry, lonely, or uninsured?