My wife and I decided this year to massacre Valentine's Day, that fakiest of all Hallmark holidays. It's been years since V-Day even meant dinner and a card exchange, never mind candy and jewelry, but with America officially eating off our grandchildren's plates now, it was time to stop pussyfooting around. So we stood Valentine's up against the wall, and filled it full o' lead, like the dirty rat that it is.
At the stores, though, it was business as usual. A pink-and-red sea of hearts and cupids and ribboned $5 knickknacks, as if demand for such things were totally inflexible. At CVS I saw a display of gigantic beet-red heart-shaped mylar balloons that sing if you tap on them. I'm not kidding: A sign claimed exactly that superpower. They were two for $6--because honestly, what can you hope to accomplish with just one singing balloon?
Hard to imagine anyone's income is quite that disposable these days. But many months transpire between the production of throwaway seasonal garbage, typically in China, and its consumption. These frivolous singing balloons had been commissioned based on last year's sales, and were already steaming toward us on a freighter when our economy first coughed up a lung; there was literally no stopping them, even if nobody in America had any "stupid money" left to buy them.
My point is this: As we downshift our screaming, whining economy out of overdrive, the holidays are going to get hit hard. Holidays were born as celebrations of momentary abundance: You share the first fruits of spring, or throw a feast after a bountiful harvest. But in the boom years of ridiculous, overleveraged plenty, there was no easy way to symbolize abundance, so they became grotesque experiments in wastefulness.
Now that money doesn't grow on trees anymore, all we can do is gather the grandchildren into a circle and tell them amazing tales of the world o' plenty we once had. Will it even sound plausible? Let's find out...
Back when money meant nothing, kids, we used to buy little cards for each other, dozens of times a year--whenever we thought of it, really. We'd spend hours milling the aisles in a potpourri daze searching for just the right mass-produced sentiment to express our unique love/gratitude/condolence. $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99...we didn't even care, as long as they shaved that symbolic penny off the top. We could have saved ALL the money AND the time with a truly personal note scribbled on a food-ration wrapper, like we do now, but that was not the tradition.
What a racket those card sharps had going! There were whole stores that sold nothing but greeting cards, and whole companies that did nothing but produce them, because they were so damn lucrative. Three cents for paper and ink, fifty bucks to the gag writer, and the rest pure, delicious profit. Nothing for the execs to do all day but dream up new fake occasions people might need greeting cards for. New job? Buy a card. Kid graduating? One card from each of you, please. Friend dying? Nothing heals like schmaltz.
Young couples were particularly susceptible, and would often hand one another multiple cards for the same occasion. One romantic one, and one funny one, let's say. And look...here's one to you from the cat, and here's one to me from the cat! Awww...
Back before the economy fell over and broke, we would celebrate our love for the saintly woman who bore us by sending her bunches of dead flowers. Every year, all of us, on the same day--can you believe it? Whole armies of gardeners would hack them down by the millions, a horrible floricaust in the merry merry month of May. And bundle and truck them to individual homes in the most wasteful process imaginable, all on the exact same day so as to further exacerbate the cost.
Father's Day never really took off, though the tie industry saw a small bump. But did folks ever love sending packages of dead flowers to their moms. In fact we were entirely price-insensitive to the whole thing; it just had to be done. On the phone, the florist would typically start by inquiring, not "What is your mother's favorite flower?" but "How much would you like to spend?" And then they could take it from there.
Back when there was still job security, when getting laid off meant mere inconvenience rather than hunger, despair, and a brief life of crime before your death in a hail of gunfire, it was customary for a young paramour to set aside two months of his salary to purchase a tiny pebble that his beloved could walk around with, in a loop on her finger. And not just any rock--It had to be the rarest, most expensive rock in the world, even if he was, say, a shoeshine boy, or a grade school principal.
Nobody remembered why, but there was no questioning it. And although this particular rock had very special properties indeed--it could cut glass, for one thing, and coax music out of grooves in vinyl--it was never used for these purposes, just for finger decoration.
And we all knew, even then, that the price of these "diamonds" was kept artificially astronomical by some shady Dutch cartel, and that they were cut out of the earth by extremely poor native people, who were frightfully abused. But there was nothing for it: Each and every eligible female on the planet had to eventually get one of these rocks on her finger, or be branded "spinster" or worse.
It wasn't enough you had to mortgage your future on one of these very expensive pebbles--no, that was just the beginning! You were supposed to buy gifts for your beloved all year long: On her birthday, and on Valentine's, and on Christmas and on your Anniversary. Your first Anniversary was the day on which it had been exactly a year since your marriage...and then your second at two years, etc. Department stores had helpful lists of appropriate materials for specific anniversaries, to make sure you were spending up to the exact level you could afford. 15th was "Crystal." 60th was "Diamond," in case by this point your beloved was bored with the crappy old diamond you had started her on.
This, children, was the big mack daddy of them all. Millions of dead flowers, iced and overnighted to virtually every house in the country might do for a pansy half-assed red-letter day like Mother's Day, but at Christmas we really pulled out the stops.
Every family had to chop down a living tree and throw it onto their curb for the garbageman, after briefly pulling it into their house to stand as a suitably grand centerpiece for a giant anthill of presents. Acres and acres of good arable soil were devoted to the growing of Christmas trees, even though there were acutely hungry people to be found, even then, in almost every city. The tree had to be able to poke out of the mound of presents, no matter how high it was, so you generally got the biggest tree that would just scrape in under your ceiling. Offices and hotel lobbies had to get them too, only they were allowed to fake the presents part with beautifully wrapped empty boxes. Some gigantic oaf of a tree would even be trucked by eighteen-wheeler to the White House itself. There were no exceptions!
Two weeks later, the dead tree would be tossed unceremoniously to the curb, bleeding tinsel and flanked by six or eight giant black trash bags, stuffed with packaging from all those presents over which this forest of dead trees had recently towered. Everyone in every family had to get multiple presents, "as many and Dyvers as thine house can afford," as Christ had decreed.
We were wacky for packaging in those days, back before the economy got drunk and stumbled out of a bar and got pulped by a truck. "Wrapping Paper" was a specialized paper designed to conceal the identity of this thing you didn't need until the exact moment you were inclined, or allowed, to see it. Sometimes, you would wait eagerly in one room, unwrapping fingers poised, while someone finished wrapping the present in the next room over.
You would then tear off the wrapping paper and put it in the garbage, so you could get to the present's store-bought packaging, which would also have to be pried away, sometimes with scissors and screwdrivers, and put in the garbage. Unless your present was very fine indeed, all that packaging and wrapping paper, and related advertising and shipping costs, would almost certainly out-cost the item itself. And old-timey Christmas songs played incessantly in the background everywhere, in stores and elevators and cars and in your house, to remind you that it had always been just like this, so shut up.
Yes, we sure did buy a lot of crap in those days generally, and holidays were there to make us feel Scrooge-y about making the slightest effort to rein it in. There weren't enough crap-buying holidays in a year to dispose of all our money, in fact, so they were constantly trying to squeeze a few more of them in, like Martin Luther King Day, and Secretary's Day.
In fact, right up to the very moment our economy leaned too far out the train window and got decapitated by the Amtrak heading the other way, department stores were subtly starting to float the idea of "Christmas in July," every year, just to see if people would go for it.