Customs: But Once a Year

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Palmistry. Santa Claus, after all, is not the symbol of Christmas Past or Christmas Future but of Christmas Presents. And in the U.S. he has never had a better year. Some 3 billion greeting cards will load down the nation's patient postmen on their appointed rounds, and some $200 million will be spent for ribbon and fancy wrapping paper alone. The tide of Christmas Club deposits has swollen to an all-time peak of $1.5 billion, and employee bonuses will make millions more available for last-minute purchases. Corporate Christmas giving, somewhat subdued in recent years because of the payola scandals, is back in fashion to the tune of more than $300 million, up about 5% from last year (many companies have turned their what-to-give problems over to antiseptic gift services that send the giftee a brochure from which to select his present; he checks off his choice on a postpaid return card).

In this season of generosity, nobody will be ignored. In the suburbs, the early-morning clatter of the garbage cans is suddenly muted; the garbageman is making sure that, come Christmas Day, he can count on the usual discreet envelope. So is the normally glum elevator operator (so suddenly cheerful), the postman and the paper boy. Nor will the needy be forgotten. Already newspaper charity columns are spread open for the willing reader; churches and hundreds of welfare agencies are preparing a Christmas bounty that will surely reach into record millions—not because the number of the needy has risen particularly, but because there are more prosperous givers than ever before. In Detroit the Goodfellows will provide a complete set of new clothes for 50,000 needy children. Across the nation the Salvation Army will collect about $1.2 million to help 1,533,000 people. In most cities Christmas baskets have been done away with. Recipients were embarrassed to have the neighbors see big cars drawing up in front of their doors, and parents felt humiliated before their children. General current practice is to send a check, which parents can use to buy presents or food.

Honeyed Things. Inevitably, the ring of the Christmastime cash registers also rings in criticism. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano recently denounced the commercialization of Christmas as an "insult to the poor" that is turning "the birthday of Christ into a pagan bacchanal." The Rev. Edgar S. Brown Jr., director of worship of the United Lutheran Church in America, has proposed flatly that the churches simply do away with Christmas services and "say to the business world, 'We don't need your greedy, selfish celebration.' " Most consumers, in moments of ill-humored desperation, agree with the critics—but don't know what to do about it, put up with the crassest of sales gimmicks as long as they get what they want.

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