The Recession That Saved Christmas | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Recession That Saved Christmas

You'd have to go back in Audrey and Owen Freeman's lives to the Christmas of 1964 to find a time such as this - when bleak circumstances should doom the spirit of the season to wander lost in a fog of loneliness, dislocation and worry. It was their second Christmas together.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 5, 2009

You'd have to go back in Audrey and Owen Freeman's lives to the Christmas of 1964 to find a time such as this - when bleak circumstances should doom the spirit of the season to wander lost in a fog of loneliness, dislocation and worry. It was their second Christmas together. They lived with their infant daughter in a bare apartment in Toronto - a city so foreign to Audrey that when she moved there from the outport of Carmanville, Nfld., she says: "If I had been going to the moon at the time, I wouldn't have been more scared." Owen was laid off just before Christmas. There wasn't a spare cent once the rent was paid. They were too proud to tell their parents so they resigned themselves to a Christmas without presents, turkey or tree. "We were young and in love, I suppose," says Audrey, "so we were willing to put up with most anything."

Two days before Christmas, a trunk was delivered to their apartment, unannounced. Audrey's parents had stuffed it with decorations and gifts; with candy, fruitcake and nuts; with a tiny red velvet dress and a stocking full of the things little girls love. There was a letter inside, too, and a cheque for $100, because there was no room in the trunk for a tree and dinner with all the trimmings. And so a Christmas that seemed destined to be marked with tears was instead celebrated with weepiness of the happy sort. Tears became a Freeman holiday tradition as three more children, then spouses, and then eight grandchildren joined the fold, all settling into communities near the Freeman's home in Ajax, Ont. "If anybody walked into our place Christmas morning," says Audrey, "they'd think we were all very sad."

Sad? Not at all. But the biggest test of that comes this Christmas. Owen lost his job last winter after 37 years with a drugstore chain, forced into early retirement in part by illness. In all, he spent three months this year in hospital. With finances tight, the Freemans reluctantly sold their home in Ajax, and moved back to Carmanville this October. "I guess you could say we've come full circle," says Audrey. "The economic downturn has affected us in that we had no choice but to move halfway across the country in order to survive on our small pension and limited savings."

They aren't alone in planning this year for a lean holiday season. World markets are in turmoil, retirement savings are gutted. The economy of Canada, like most of its global trading partners, is in decline. Consumer confidence, the Conference Board of Canada reported in November, fell to its lowest point since the brutal recession of 1982. And no wonder: some 71,000 Canadian jobs were lost last month, the largest drop in 25 years.

In the U.S., which lost almost two million jobs in the past year, a survey by Consumer Reports magazine found 76 per cent of shoppers said they'll scale back their holiday spending this year. In the United Kingdom, stores are so desperate to move stock that Displaysense, a company that provides retail signs and banners, sold out of its supply of 70-, 80- and 90-per-cent-off banners.

Obviously for many this will seem a diminished holiday born of fear and debt. And yet, with tough times comes an opportunity to reimagine the holiday. There are many who see this as the recession that saved Christmas, a chance to scale back the spending and search out the optimism of our inner Tiny Tims. What is Christmas, after all, but the willing suspension of disbelief? There is much that can't be measured by leading economic indicators, or by money in the bank or the lack of it. For the Freemans, the standard for all the Christmases to come was set in the hardship of 44 years ago. "We are fortunate in that we started to cut back on spending and realize the true meaning of Christmas long before we were forced to," says Audrey as she readies their home for the holidays.

This year, they face the prospect of a first Christmas far from their children, like many families this recessionary season who will be unable to spend as they are accustomed to on presents and travel. The Freemans are determined to make the best of it, saying it gives the children, now in their 30s and 40s, a chance to start their own traditions. Their gift-giving has never been extravagant. "Thankfully, my family is very creative," says Audrey. "They paint, they make things. One is into music. They always seem to come up with a homemade gift that really comes from the heart." Last year - the last Christmas in Ajax - the children got gift baskets heaped with home baking and preserves. This year (spoiler alert, kids!) Audrey has been knitting and sewing up a storm.

The family will watch each other open their presents Christmas morn via a Skype computer video link; the elder Freemans recalling a time when a good yak on the long-distance line would have cost $20 or $30, half a week's take-home pay. The Freemans will then dine with Audrey's cousins in Carmanville, where they will toast their good fortune and Owen's improving health. "He's doing really well," Audrey says. "We're very thankful just to have each other, and to be able to celebrate Christmas at all."

Portly Gentleman: "At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time."

Ebenezer Scrooge: "Why?"

- Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol

Each season, millions of families lose themselves in the black-and-white world of A Christmas Carol - the 1951 version, of course, starring Alastair Sim. Film buffs and seasonal sentimentalists consider it the definitive interpretation of Charles Dickens's classic parable of greed and redemption, set against the poverty of Victorian London. It's near impossible to avoid, running as it does in endless rotation on one channel or other this time of year, along with such enduring favourites as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.

It's a curious thing, really, the endless appetite for these and a handful of other Christmas classics. It is a Hollywood version of the season, spiritual without being Biblical, in that there are ghosts in Dickens's classic, a hapless angel in Wonderful Life and an all-knowing Santa in Miracle. Inevitably, there is spiritual and usually financial poverty to overcome. Always there is the revelation that, as Dr. Seuss's Grinch discovers, Christmas "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas - perhaps - means a little bit more."

No matter how bloated our Christmas spending - Canadians put out a record $40 billion last December - there is appetite for these stories, perhaps as an antidote to excess. Or as a way of skimming through the broad themes of Christ's birth - poverty, sacrifice, generosity, redemption - without having to get all churchy. Or maybe - wading toward the television through a sea of debt-inducing presents - there is a need for an emotional bond with Christmas, not as it is, but as we want to think it is.

Gerry Bowler, who teaches history at the University of Manitoba and is the author of Santa Claus: A Biography, and The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, has a theory about why poverty and hardship is so bound up in the real spirit of the season, at least as defined by authors and screenwriters. "The story of the nativity is a couple forced to give birth in the animal shed in the back, and then a little while later routed out by the secret police and [forced] to go to exile in Egypt until it's safe," he says of the Biblical Christmas story. "But it's largely about the magic, about the transformative possibilities of the season. We do allow ourselves this one month out of the year when we believe that things will be better, and we'll behave better."

Everyone has a favourite Christmas movie, and a different reason why. For Virginia Brucker, a primary teacher and author, and her husband, Charlie, it's A Christmas Carol. After opening their few modest presents, (friends having been urged to channel their gifts to charity), they snuggle before the television in their home in scenic Nanoose Bay, B.C., to watch Scrooge's spiritual awakening. "Think of the difference that Scrooge made in one family's life," says Virginia. "You can't change the world, but if you can find one family and help change their Christmas then that's enough."

It's that philosophy - rediscovering the difference between spending and generosity - that inspired Brucker's bestselling book, Gifts from the Heart: Simple Ways to Make Your Family's Christmas More Meaningful. It's a sweet and wonderful blueprint for restoring reason to the season. There are simple recipes, advice on dealing with illness, death and divorce, and hundreds of suggestions for pot-luck parties and presents that won't put you in the poorhouse. She offers ideas for reaching out, by organizing a warm clothing drive, or mailing an anonymous card and food voucher to a family in need.

Brucker self-published the book in 2000, donating $98,500 of the proceeds to cancer research. A revised and expanded version was released by Toronto-based Insomniac Press in time for last Christmas. Publisher Mike O'Connor says he's noticed a decided increase in online sales of the book this season. "Basically, the people buying the book now are out there looking specifically for ideas on how to celebrate the season by being a little more frugal," he says. "They're plugging those sorts of things into Google and they're arriving at the book."

Brucker admits she was once an ardent student of the Martha Stewart school of festive perfection. Now she and Charlie have so many outside commitments it's a victory just to get the family decorations up before Christmas Eve. These days, she says, their Christmases feel good rather than look good. "It's not so much about what comes under the tree as about how we connect and reach out to other people," says Brucker.

Will a recession transform Christmas? "It could. I would love to see that happen," she says. "But I don't want to celebrate a recession because that means people are out of work and that's a very hard thing." Environmentally, financially and emotionally, Christmas needs to change, she says. "People spend more time in the mall than they do volunteering in their communities, and that's a pretty hollow pastime." Then she pauses a moment, considering the consequences. "If we stop shopping, the stores would have to lay off more people, so it's a conundrum."

Christmas has had a gift-giving component for centuries, says Bowler. There is no great wrong in its commercial aspect, it's just a question of restoring some balance, he says. There are seasons to the Bible: Lent is for penitence and self-denial; Christmas is for letting loose, he says. "If you can't get excited as a Christian about the birth of baby Jesus, then you're in the wrong religion."

"They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming. They're just waking up, I know just what they'll do. Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry, 'Boo Hoo.' "

- The Grinch forecasts consumer discontent in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Two different realities face Canadians today, says Peter Woolford, vice-president of policy development and research at the Retail Council of Canada. Most people are making more money than last year, unemployment is still at one of the lowest points in history (although recent auto cuts threaten that), and real disposable income has been rising. On the flip side, for many Canadians, "their retirement savings have gone kablooey, the value of their house might have dropped and they're not too sure about their future employment prospects because of all the worries about the economy," he says. "That battle is going on in the heads of everybody."

The other paradox is that while Canada has its economy in better order than during the recession of the early 1990s, when unemployment, inflation and deficits were skyrocketing, the international scene is much more dire, says Woolford. "So you can learn from the past, but we are, to a degree, in uncharted waters." Although nervous retailers and anxious travel providers are slashing pre-Christmas prices, a recent survey by Deloitte Canada found 53 per cent of Canadians were planning to spend as much or more than last Christmas. Those planning to cut their spending, however, have jumped to 40 per cent from 25 per cent.

Still, Brent Houlden of Deloitte predicts spending will surpass last December's level. "Consumers always spend more than they intend during the holiday season, and with Canadians enjoying lower gas prices they'll have a little more cash in their wallets." But shoppers will be more price-conscious - 83 per cent of Canadians said they're going to buy more sale items. There is also evidence that Canadians are more focused on ethical buying: more than half said they are willing to spend more for an eco-friendly present.

But, as the Grinch discovered (once his mean little ticker grew three sizes that day), it's not just about presents. A recent poll by Ipsos Reid and World Vision Canada found 82 per cent of Canadians plan on giving as much or more to charity as they did last year. They said they'll curb expenses on Christmas gifts, entertainment, dining out and clothing before cutting donations. It's not that Canadians are out of touch with the financial crisis; to the contrary, 65 per cent say the economic downturn has made them "more likely" to help the less fortunate.

"We're finding that Canadians' generosity is as strong as ever," says Michael Messenger, vice-president of public affairs at World Vision. "[They] are tightening their belts, but they're not doing it at the expense of the poor." From October to mid-November the number of donations to World Vision hit 33,000 - a 34 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2007, he says. "It is amazing." Messenger cites examples of how his charity is benefiting from seasonal goodwill. Jason Droppert, a personal trainer in Waterloo, Ont., is thanking his clients this year by making donations in their honour from World Vision's catalogue, which includes such gifts to the developing world as livestock, seeds, wells and water filters. Meaty Meats, a food shop in Mississauga, Ont., is donating 10 per cent of its Saturday sales until Christmas. Linden Christian School in Winnipeg raised $12,000.

And, although the final tally isn't yet in, it seems the downturn hasn't hurt Operation Christmas Child's ambitious target of putting 750,000 present-filled shoeboxes into the hands of children in Central and South America and West Africa. The boxes, which donors across the country fill with simple toys, hygiene items and school supplies, are a project of Calgary-based Samaritan's Purse Canada, an international Christian evangelical aid group. "We've seen in some instances [donation] increases of 15 to 20 per cent in some of the events leading up to collection week," says Michael Ulrich, communications adviser for the project. "Even in tough times there's that willingness to realize you still have more than people living in dire situations somewhere else in the world."

"For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

- Linus sneaks a rare appearance by Christ into a Christmas special in A Charlie Brown Christmas

In malls and on Canadian street corners, the approaching winter is marked each year by a changing of the guard. The veterans with their containers of poppies are replaced with the red kettles of the Salvation Army. Michael Maidment of the Ottawa Salvation Army says his favourite Christmas memory is of a snowy night when he was a teen living in rural Newfoundland. He and the Salvation Army band set up in front of an old folks' home and played his favourite holiday song. Coventry Carol is a haunting 16th-century mother's lament about the dreadful fate that awaits her child. It evokes the Biblical story of King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborns in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill baby Jesus. Maidment watched as the wrinkly faces of old men and women popped up in the windows of the complex, drawn by the power of the story and the sad beauty of the song. "I still remember that perfect Christmas moment," he says.

The Christmas story is all about giving, says Maidment. "When you look at the Christian message, it's about God giving his son." He expects people will rise to meet the current economic challenge as they have during wars and the Great Depression. In many ways, Maidment says need focuses the public on the actual meaning of Christmas. As proof, he points to the tremendous response after the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004. "People [were] in the spirit" to give, he says, and "the response right across Canada was absolutely incredible. And so fast."

There was a similar public outpouring in Vancouver this season after a Salvation Army warehouse was robbed of $25,000 worth of food and presents. It was a serious setback for the agency, which was trying to fill Christmas hampers for 1,600 families, up from 1,200 last year. But instead of disaster, news of the robbery inspired more than $170,000 in public and corporate donations. As well, Vancouver police recovered many of the stolen presents after some members of Vancouver's criminal underworld, disgusted by the theft, "dropped the dime" on some of the suspected thieves, said police Const. Tim Fanning.

The Sally Ann in Abbotsford, B.C., is certainly coping with a greater need this season, says Deb Lowell, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army there. The use of its social services, from meals to emergency beds, is up 12 per cent over last year. So far, the weakening economy hasn't resulted in a drop in donations in Canada's most generous city, she says. (Abbotsford, in B.C.'s Fraser Valley Bible Belt, gave a median $620 to a variety of causes in 2007.) What financial constraints may do, she hopes, is inspire a quieter, more reflective Christmas. "Sort of along the same lines as 'there's no atheists in a fox hole,' " she says. "It really causes us to re-evaluate our priorities and what's really important, and what's of eternal value."

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., a coalition of 13 churches banded together 25 years ago to finance a soup kitchen as recession-struck Algoma Steel was laying off hundreds of workers. Today, churches and individual donors are again stepping up, says Calna McGoldrick, manager of the soup kitchen since 1995. "I'm seeing more new faces come through the door in the last two months than I did probably in the last six, or in all of last year."

Three weeks ago, the soup kitchen's largest individual donor doubled his contribution from $5,000 to $10,000. Then, staff from a local office asked to help however was best. McGoldrick told them about a guitar-playing regular who calls himself Homeless Harry. Often his time there coincides with the meals of two families who each have a small child. Homeless Harry plays and the two children dance like there's no tomorrow. When the office crew heard this, they knew what they would do this season. They've raised money to give the children dance lessons.

"There's a lot of bad 'isms floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism...Don't care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck."

- Alfred, the janitor, Macy's Department Store, Miracle on 34th Street

The bucks are harder to come by this year at Spruceland Millworks, a specialty lumber company in Spruce Grove, Alta. Like many export-dependent firms, it is hurting from the downturn in the construction market, and yet the owners and staff are determined to maintain their tradition of generosity. It was four years ago at a staff Christmas party that company founder Ben Sawatzky was asked about his recent international travels. He used the chance to explain his charity work. "He has a flair for the dramatic," says his son, Josh, who works in human resources and sales for Spruceland, "and when he speaks, he tends to get people's attention."

After his talk, Ben handed out the annual bonuses. A worker gave his back to help the children in one of his charities. One thing led to another, and Ben and his partner and brother Willie Sawatzky agreed to match from their personal finances any donations the workers made. Now, each December, many on staff make voluntarily payroll deductions. Last year's combined total: $203,000.

Staff and management now support 138 African orphans. As tough as times are, says Josh, "You can't just stop sponsoring someone." Spruceland is also midway through a three-year commitment to build 200 houses for Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. The company ships containers of wood to the site. And twice a year, a 14-member team of Spruceland workers arrives to help build the houses. The volunteers use a week of vacation and take a week of unpaid leave. Travel and accommodation costs are split between the owners and the workers. They come back with their eyes opened, says Josh. "It's a grind right now," he says. "But you get people thinking, 'We're not doing too bad. We've got a pretty good situation here.'"

Even with global markets in tatters, Spruceland directed its generosity toward its staff. They celebrated Christmas early this November by sending 308 people - workers and their families - on an all-expense-paid week in Bucerias, Mexico. They held their staff party by the water, complete with Mexican-spiced turkey, dancers, and fireworks. This year's event almost certainly wouldn't have happened on this epic scale if not for a ruling forcing the return of some of the softwood lumber tariff Spruceland paid into the U.S. Ben and Willie decided the party was a way to share the windfall with those who got them through the protracted tariff wars.

Spruceland's generosity is exceptional, but not unique. Many businesses take charities under their wings. One such beneficiary is Toronto's Yonge Street Mission, which helps the working poor and homeless. It has several corporate angels this season as well as a 15 per cent surge in individual donations, says Barbara Walkden, director of development. Nike Canada, which last year sent 70 employees to volunteer, will add another 35 this season. KPMG staff are also pitching in. There's a recognition the need is greater this season, Walkden says. "A lot of people think, 'There for the grace of God. It could be a lot worse for me.' " Volunteerism is up, too. "We can't host as many people as would like to serve meals," she says. "It's amazing."

"Oh, Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind."

- Kris Kringle, Miracle on 34th Street

The red velvet dress given to Audrey Freeman's daughter has long been outgrown, and her parents have passed on, but the years haven't dimmed the memory of that best-ever Christmas. If anything, it has become burnished with time, and the retelling of it, into a fine, warm glow. Now, the little girl in that dress is the one hosting the clan Christmas dinner. "She's taking over from Mom," Audrey says with pride. "She's making her own traditions. As long as they're all together that's what's important to me." And if one of the kids has created a painting for the Freeman's new home in Carmanville, well, that will also be worth a tear or two.

Lessons were learned all those years ago, and they have been applied in good times and bad. It wasn't the dress or the money or the goodies, as welcome as they were, that saved the Christmas of '64. What spilled out of the trunk that morning was the certainty they were loved.

See also Recession.

Maclean's January 5, 2009