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Published: Wednesday, 12/24/2008

Put the 'merry' back in Christmas

OUR editor-in-chief, who knows better than most the challenges presented by the current economy, asked his editorial board to try hard during the holiday season to think about the upbeat as well as the distressing signs.

There is a particular aspect of the immediate situation that is especially rough. In light of the job losses, breaking decades-old records with more to come, Americans are inevitably and sensibly clenching their teeth and hunkering down in terms of spending. At the same time, we are informed that our practicing this prudence will also result globally in further contraction of the economy: that is to say, more job losses and more misery.

We have all grasped that there is under way a general scaling-back, a general reducing of standards of living to a sustainable level. The new status quo could be one no longer based on the fun but wildly unrealistic assumption that housing prices would continue to rise.

Now, the problem that faces us this holiday season is how to reconcile in our behavior the necessary scaling-back while not letting it crush us or, in the short term, not letting it blight the spirit of this time of year.

There are ways to do this. A lot of what makes Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa costs little in dollar terms.

Which will do more for you, shelling out big bucks for tickets to events the Nutcracker, a Penguins match, or even a movie or gathering friends and family together and singing carols, or Rudolph?

Another fabulous, almost free (given the falling price of gas) spectacle is a drive through a neighborhood where residents have decorated their houses with lights. We did that last night in Pacific Grove, Calif., where people can afford high electric bills and go over the top.

I have found it equally satisfying to visit more modest neighborhoods in Pennsylvania and Ohio where people have candles and small light wreathes in their windows. Each house wishes its neighbors a happy holiday without unduly enriching electric company moguls and stockholders.

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Now, in order that no one fear, as one of my mothers-in-law used to say that the season has caused me to go soft in the head, here are a few other slightly tangier seasonal delights. Imagine some presents for 2008 favorites.

The Icelanders, reflecting no doubt the absolutely appalling darkness and cold they suffer this time of year have trolls as part of their seasonal folklore. Trolls come in December and take children s presents from them. That story came from a time when Icelandic parents sometimes had no presents to give their children.

It could be that this December the trolls brought Americans Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and financier Bernard Madoff. Both are alleged to have set stunning new standards for creepiness in their respective professions. If the trolls won t agree to take them away, I hope at least that Santa brings them both 2009 prison buzz-cuts.

America s rich palette of public personalities has also offered us some bright new figures for the coming year. First and foremost among them has to be President-elect Barack Obama.

One outstanding package that he will bring with him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Jan. 20 will be his Cabinet picks.

There is every reason to believe that media and Senate dumpster-diving will come up with flaws in some of them in time for the confirmation hearings. In general, however, they appear to constitute a bright tapestry of talent and gender, ethnic, party, and regional diversity.

The basic point about Mr. Obama s coming presidency for this country is that it offers us hope in darkness. He is going to be faced simultaneously with a daunting range of problems, starting with the economy and Mr. Bush s war. But there is every reason from what one sees coming out of Chicago that he is already on top of the issues.

Then there is the Caroline Kennedy question. It is better to write about this one from Pittsburgh or California.

In New York City, one would risk not being invited out on New Year s Eve as a result of indelicate comments on her candidacy for appointment as senator.

She is a celebrity with star quality. In that sense she could be considered to be a thinking person s Sarah Palin. She would bring glamour to the job, but, like Mrs. Palin and the vice presidency, likely would be found by the American people to be out over her head in terms of necessary, relevant qualifications.

I don t like hereditary politics at all. I thought we got rid of that in 1776. Even though I recognize that some good things have been done by Kennedys, Clintons, and even Bushes, the idea totally repels me.

It is, of course, at this point entirely up to New York Gov. David A. Paterson, an electorate of one. Speaking of major injustice, so is the choice of a successor to Mr. Obama as Illinois senator still firmly in the hands of Hair Guy, absent someone figuring out how to get rid of him.

Wouldn t it be more satisfying even for Ms. Kennedy herself eventually to run for office, in New York or Massachusetts, rather than to achieve a seat in the Congress in a royal nursery deal?

Finally, to take us out on an upbeat note this Christmas Eve, I quote from a piece from the Carmel (California) Pine Cone of Dec. 19. Under the headline, Always Room at the Table the Pine Cone reports: For the 23rd year, a free Christmas dinner will be held in the Monterey Room at the Monterey Fairgrounds on Christmas Day from noon to 3 p.m. In addition to a traditional holiday feast, the event which is free and open to everyone will include musical entertainment, toys for children, and an appearance from Santa Claus.

The spirit that lies behind such community traditions, plus the fact of the basically rich piece of real estate we Americans inhabit, and our own good habits of hard work and good sense, will carry us through whatever nonsense we encounter or bad cards we are dealt in the coming year.

So be of good cheer.

Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).



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