11/30/2011 12:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

Mall Santas Curb Children's Expectations To Reflect Faltering Economy

With so much economic uncertainty weighing on Americans this holiday season, even Santa Claus has to hedge a bit.

Prospective Santas at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, where students are trained for appearances in malls and nursing homes, are making some changes in deference to the economic picture, according to The New York Times. Many Santas are tailoring their remarks to manage children's expectations, reflecting the fact that a lot of families simply won't be able to afford a lavish Christmas this year.

Despite strong sales numbers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Christmas 2011 is likely to be a modest affair for many Americans. With unemployment high, housing values in a five-year slump and wages essentially stagnant, a large number of people -- including onetime members of the suburban middle class -- are struggling simply to make ends meet.

According to one recent study, nearly half of all Americans, including 55 percent of all children, now live in households where the ability to pay for basic necessities -- including food, transportation and medical care -- is precarious.

Such widespread economic adversity means that for many families, putting a laptop or an iPod under the Christmas tree is likely out of the question.

The Santas at the Charles W. Howard School -- some of whom have started mentioning to children when a wish list seems especially long or expensive, and who say that parents seem to approve when they do this, the NYT reports -- appear to be acknowledging a rising atmosphere of financial anxiety as Christmas draws closer. In a recent CBS News poll, 40 percent of Americans said they planned to spend less on holiday gifts this year than they did last year, and 50 percent said they were worried about not being able to afford everything they wanted to buy.

Overall, consumers are more confident about the economy than they've been since the summer, a boost driven in part by record spending during the Thanksgiving-weekend shopping period. But last week's strong sales don't guarantee that the momentum will last, analysts say. And confidence levels are still well below what they would be in a healthy economy, the Associated Press reports.

Part of the lack of forward momentum in the economy is due to a climate of high investor caution. Concerns over budget battles in Washington, and the possibility of a sovereign debt disaster in Europe, are keeping investment activity relatively low, which in turn means a dearth of growth and hiring.

And with political battles likely to delay the passage of meaningful jobs legislation for the foreseeable future, there appears to be little chance that the labor market will soon be reinvigorated.