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Holiday Season: Marrying Religion to the Market

It is estimated that Americans will spend more than 440-billion dollars this December, celebrating the so-called "holiday season". The Christian holiday of Christmas and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah both fall in December. New Year's Eve revelries are also a big tradition in the United States. Because of this, retailers have come to depend upon this time of year.

The numbers are staggering: $1 billion on Christmas trees... $2 billion on holiday cards, and another $500 million on postage to send them... $200 billion on gifts. And nearly $1.5 billion just on alcohol for company parties and private celebrations.

This year, Americans will spend more money celebrating the holidays than their government spends on defense. The typical person shells out around $800 each December for gifts, parties and decorations, but some people - like Stephanie Longardo - find themselves spending a lot more than that. Ms. Longardo anticipates Christmas will cost her between $2500 and $3000.

"I'd say probably about $1500 of it is for Christmas gifts, for various family and friends and office workers," she says. "A good $500 to $600 (is) just meals, meeting friends for the holidays, you know, entertainment. And then," Ms. Longardo laughs, "Clothes for myself for the holidays is probably the rest, and shoes…"

American retailers love people like Stephanie Longardo. In fact, they rely upon them. Studies show that most businesses generate anywhere from 25-40% of their annual revenue just between the last week of November and the last week of December.

Scott Krugman, who is with the National Retail Federation, says some industries are more dependent upon the holidays than others. "Stationers, for example. People who are selling greeting cards, gift wraps, things like that," he says. "Party supply stores are really depending on the holiday season."

Thousands of Americans go into debt in order to engage in all this buying. Many will spend the first six months of 2006 paying off the debt they accumulated during the last six weeks of 2005. But Scott Krugman says retailers are expecting some consumers to be a bit more cautious this year.

"I think the biggest challenge for retailers this year is going to be energy costs," he says. "They're coming down, but still, consumers are paying more to heat their homes than they were a year ago. And that's why we're seeing retailers be so aggressive on price this year."

According to some people, retailers are aggressive about everything at this time of year. Bill Talen is a performance artist who has launched a 'stop shopping' crusade. He and his colleagues are touring the country, and -- because Mr. Talen believes consumerism has become a sort of 'religion' in America -- his speeches and interviews sound like a sermon.

"Products can't make you happy," he calmly says. "You do that yourself. You do that in your community, with friends and lovers." But then, Mr. Talen's fervor begins to show. "Products are always selling themselves to us as the way to be happy," he cries. "Corporations demand that they have the privilege of mediating between us and our own happiness! Excuse me, my life is not a Disney production! Hallelujah! Somebody give me a 'amen' out there!"

Bill Talen - or 'Reverend Billy', as he likes to be called - will travel more than 8,000 kilometers this holiday season, preaching his gospel of anti-consumption in shopping malls and town squares. But it is not likely that he will find a convert in Stephanie Longardo. She says shopping really does make her happy, and at least at this time of year, she is obliged to be altruistic about it.

"I do feel a sense of obligation to give some gifts," she laughs, "And if I didn't spend the money on those gifts, I'd probably spend it on myself. I'm being honest! But I do enjoy all of it. I don't think about, 'Oh, my God, the bills, the this, the that, you know.' And I do plan ahead. So it's not like after I'm going to get hit with credit card bills. I usually do use cash."

Although not all Americans do use cash, most are like Ms. Longardo, in that they do not worry about their holiday spending. A recent survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that 65% of Americans are unconcerned about holiday debt, and a fear of bills does not prevent them from buying at this time of year.