The Long View – Keeping the family balance sheet in order

Once again, holiday lines have carried us in to a new and busy season. In our family they started off, as always, with a lineup for Thanksgiving assignments.

“Who’s bringing the creamed onions?” “Who’s bringing the squash?” “Is the turkey taken care of?” “Who’ll bring extra stuffing?” “What about a pumpkin pie, an apple pie and a pecan pie for backup?” The aim, as always, is to match willingness to talent.

One step at a time, the style and substance of another holiday season began to take shape. The rhythm and pace of the season, the tastes and traditions don’t just fall together helter-skelter. They key a family celebration. From now into the new year, they remind us where we stand in a long line of people who share our genes, our names and, on some lucky occasions, even our memories. It’s a time of year when “family-style” takes on meaning all its own.

Nowadays, however, some key parts of that style have changed. In our family, we still line up for the time-honored tasks of cooking, serving and clearing up after Thanksgiving dinner. Then the season opens up to new lines and new ways of perceiving them. Instead of familiar faces steaming in clouds of hot foods waiting to be tasted, we get to watch other people work while we relax. Football teams line up in arenas many miles away. We cheer their big plays from our living room couches. Huge, padded bodies collide.Patterns unfold that take counting and precision. We cheer. We whistle. We yell. Then, when it’s over, we watch the news.

And not much changes. The people we see on news programs are lined up, too. But they’re not running around. They’re not working. They’re sitting outdoors sporting crabapple-red noses and thick mittens on their hands.They’re waiting for the style of holiday they want now – stores with bargains to sell, hopefully while Thanksgiving dinner is still cooking. We’ve entered a special holiday season, all right, and some have given it a special name – “Super Bowl season for retailers.”

History suggests that Sir Walter Raleigh would not rate this style trend very highly. He might more likely pull out a holiday greeting of his own: “Better were it to be unborn than to be ill-bred.” And toss it with a wave of his beard toward a Black Friday shopping cart piled with electronic devices while the turkey timers are still doing their stuff.

Even Raleigh, however, might find it hard to understand why people would rather sit in the cold than cook in the house as the holiday season rushes past. What can we tell him?

“It’s the style, Sir Walter. It’s the style.”

The bells that signal the buying and selling of goods have overtaken the traditional bells of the holidays.

Where Americans used to fear “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” people seem now to fear putting it back.

It’s easy to understand why. But that doesn’t make the change any easier to applaud. This is the time of year when retailers balance their books. Some count on holiday buying for as much as 30 percent of their yearly revenue. That’s not the style of a bubbly holiday season; for retailers it’s the substance. Turkey is good news on a platter but it’s bad news on a balance sheet. Surviving in a tough economic squeeze is essential. So retailers press for special shopping days for big-box stores, for small stores, for hours in the day (and night) and days in the week, as well as blatant new pitches to our pocketbooks.

Meanwhile, we try to keep our own balance sheet in order: Set a room aside for quiet moments, complete with shared wonder at what we have, shared work we should pursue and shared goals we need to stick together to meet. This season is about more than commerce. It’s about sacred truths. Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island each have laws that limit hours major retailers may be open on Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter Sunday.

It’s a style worth preserving. Let’s not steamroll families out of this most family-oriented time of year.

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