Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Thoughts

Sing a Song of Christmas: Watching CBS Sunday Morning earlier today, I was confronted by the usual mix of Christmas advertising, particularly for holiday song albums. There was a new one from Andrea Bocelli. And in a twist to creeping commercialism, one of the icons of individualism, Bob Dylan, has a Christmas album with a purpose—royalties will be donated to various charities.

It always intrigues me that Jewish singers like Dylan turn out Christmas albums. Barbra Streisand did. Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, as well. And let’s not forget that the songwriter of White Christmas (and Easter Parade) was none other than Israel Baline, known universally as Irving Berlin.

What I’m really waiting for is a Christmas album from Matisyahu. The reggae Jewish rapper—who grew up in White Plains as Matt Miller, was in my son’s high school class, hung out with my daughter, and was a H.S. math student of my niece—could cement his crossover appeal with a Christmas album. Just a thought...

Light the Way: Hannukah is the Festival of Lights. But let’s be honest—Hannukah’s candle power, even when enhanced by electric menorahs, is no match for a good Christmas light display.

For years residents of White Plains didn’t have to travel far for a breathtaking exhibition of holiday cheer and excess. The homeowners on Briga Lane and Rose Way vied for most elaborate Christmas light display. House after house electrified the season. Traffic snarled each night as cars snailed by at 5 mph, along the cul-de-sac of Briga Lane and down both sides of Rose Way.

All but one house was illuminated. That house belonged to the Hauptman family, one of the original homeowners on Briga Lane and a member of Temple Israel Center. As each new neighbor put up Christmas lights more elaborate than the house next door, the Hauptman residence took on an even darker countenance.

A few years ago Briga Lane started getting darker. Perhaps some owners moved away, replaced by new residents who either did not go in for ostentatious displays or simply did not share the motivation behind public symbols underpinning Christmas. Or maybe the economy zapped their participation. It is, after all, a burden on one’s Con Ed bill to light up each night from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

Our family for many years enjoyed the ritual of searching for the best lights on Christmas Eve. We’d traverse lower Westchester County. One home, along California Road in Eastchester, always drew our attention until its ownership, too, changed hands and the lights went dark.

It wasn’t until Ellie moved to Brooklyn a few years ago that we have been able to indulge again in a feast of lights. In the Dyker Heights section, street after street is festooned and lit up in dazzling display ( If you like Christmas lights, go there. You’ll soon find out there is more to see and entertain your eyes than time will permit, even at 5 mph.

Troubled Times: Gilda talked me into shopping for some Hannukah presents over the weekend. I’m not against shopping. It’s just that I prefer doing it when few people are around, and this being the next to last weekend before Christmas, expectations were that stores would be mobbed. So much for expectations. We zipped right through. Good for us. Bad for the economy.

Despite their best promotions, retailers are again suffering through a paltry holiday selling season. They’ve trained customers to wait, and wait, and wait for bigger and bigger sales. It’s going to take several seasons of re-education for retailers to change this dynamic. They have to cut back on inventory and actually disappoint lots of customers with out of stocks.

Normally a retailer will go to great lengths to make sure there is sufficient inventory to meet demand. But that led to extreme discounts in recent years when consumers reduced spending and merchants didn’t want to get stuck with excessive inventory.

Now each retailer has to educate its best customers that if they see an item they like in the size they require, they should buy it ASAP or run the risk of missing out. It will take one or two seasons of missed opportunities for this new reality to sink in, on both sides of the buying equation. But without this re-education process, many firms in the retail industry (retailers, suppliers, wholesalers and landlords) will teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.

No one wants to pay higher prices, but the consequences of a struggling retail industry are higher unemployment (retail stores are the number one private sector employer, on top of which you can add the various service and manufacturing jobs associated with retailing) and a less robust economy for all.