Opinion: The suckiest Christmas ever
Now that a month has passed and we’re well into the new year, we can dispassionately evaluate our most recent Christmas. With a month-long respite from Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Nasally Divergent Reindeer, we should have the ability to recount, in unbiased fashion, the good and bad of our most cherished holiday (except for Halloween, of course). And maybe this should be done with Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” playing in the background.
Grandma did not get run over by a reindeer; she was squashed by a steam roller. Daddy caught Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe. Now only their lawyers are talking to each other. Military personnel serving overseas did not come home for Christmas, not even in our dreams. But, for the most part, our dreams were nightmares. And the kid who wanted nothing other than his two front teeth for Christmas lost a molar.
We’ve just had the suckiest Christmas ever. And we can’t blame the Grinch this time. In 2020, the villain was COVID-19. By December 25th, there had been nearly 19 million coronavirus cases (now 24 million), and 330,000 deaths (now more than 400,000) from the disease in the United States. More than one of every 1,000 Americans have died from the virus. However, we have the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and the possibility of more: AstraZeneca from England, Sputnik V from Russia, and Sinopharm from China. But, with a population in excess of 330 million people, 660 million doses will have to be delivered. The logistics are daunting.
Then we learned that there are at least two new variants of the coronavirus. We don’t know much about them, except that they spread easily and quickly. Yet, despite warnings from the medical community to shelter in place, millions of Americans traveled over the holidays by plane, train, and bus, and we’re just starting to see the new cases from that lapse of good sense.
COVID-19 has taken a on the economy. Restaurants have been devastated, with many of them closing their doors forever. Others are struggling to stay in business with delivery and take-out, but whether they can recover several months from now is uncertain. Some national chains that have suspended operations and filed for Chapter 11 protection are Sizzler, Ruby Tuesday, and Friendly’s. They may survive, but many others — particularly local eateries — won’t make it.
Businesses offering personal services, like salons and barber shops, have been similarly affected. Hundreds of other businesses have shut down permanently. A few, like Pier 1, have shifted to online sales, a phenomenon that has hurt brick-and-mortar stores.
Even some of the nation’s iconic businesses are in deep trouble, including Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, JCPenney, Hertz (the car rental giant which also owns Dollar Rental and Thrifty Rental), Brooks Brothers, Lord and Taylor, and Guitar Center, among many others.
What happens when businesses like these disappear?
Well, perhaps they won’t; a number of them may reopen with some modifications. Others might be able to sell their retail outlets to other entities. For example, GNC (distributor of vitamins and supplements) filed a bankruptcy petition and planned to close between 800 and 1,200 of its stores. However, in September a judge approved the sale of GNC’s holdings to Harbin Pharmaceutical Group, a corporation based in China. It is possible that other companies may be forced to sell their businesses to foreign corporations that are flush with cash.
Corporate financial problems usually mean catastrophe for employees. Lay-offs have been common across the board. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.6 million of the nation’s workers are unemployed. That represents about eight percent of the workforce, and it is an increase from 3.5 percent in February, before the effects of the virus were felt.
California has been hurt more than the nation as a whole. Last February, about 750,000 Californians were out of work. That number skyrocketed to more than 3 million in April. By September, more than 8 million Californians had filed for unemployment insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Now, 1.8 million Californians are unemployed, still more than double the number before the pandemic struck.
The numbers don’t reflect the pain and hardship that has been inflicted by the spread of the disease. In a society where the rich got substantially richer and everyone else, including workers at almost every level, got poorer, the numbers don’t explain the fear of being evicted from one’s home, the horror of being unable to provide food for oneself and one’s children, and the uncertainty of what the future may hold.
You’d have to be approaching your 100th birthday to be able to remember a Christmas that was as bleak as that which we‘ve recently experienced. But, times were simpler during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Christmas was not as immersed in commercialism as it is now. Consequently, expectations that necessitated monetary expenditures were lower. And this is where a key concept comes into play: relative deprivation.
In poor countries, people experience absolute deprivation. For example, from 1845 to 1849 Ireland experienced “The Great Hunger,” also known as the potato famine. Literally millions of people starved to death. Between 1850 and 1890, half the population of the country emigrated, nearly all of the refugees coming to the United States.
In wealthy countries deprivation is usually relative; in other words, people feel deprived of things relative to how others are doing. Before this pandemic is over, I worry that many U.S. residents will experience absolute deprivation, perhaps a larger percentage of our population than was affected during the Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century.
During the last holiday season, conditions came together like a “perfect storm” and made Dec. 25, 2020, the suckiest Christmas ever.
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.