"This is the worst Christmas of my entire life!" said my beautiful, 7-year-old nephew on Christmas Eve, shortly after all the gifts had been unwrapped. There hadn't been that many, and his haul had not included that one thing that had topped his list to Santa.
I noticed it early on in the evening: the usual excess of brightly-wrapped presents was but a small - yet respectable - pile that didn't over-power the tree like in years past. I wondered how the six kiddies in my family would take their first - but certainly not last - credit crunch Christmas.
There was no way to prepare them for it: grade-schoolers don't read the Financial Times, they don't pay any attention to the evening news and blissfully overlook their parent's pained faces at the dinner table.
In my family alone a devastating illness, paired with a job loss (unemployment) and slashed hours (underemployment) made for a slightly less cheery affair than usual, and the kids were the only ones honest enough to say so.
Christmas cards that in years past had been stuffed with dead presidents or gift cards contained only warm greetings. The adults limited presents to the children and the kids - accustomed to way over-the-top outpourings of purchased appreciation - looked around, confused. "This is it?"
Yes, it was.
On the day after Christmas - quickly coined this year's second "Black Friday" of the year because of the bargains retailers are using to salvage the shopping season - when I and half of America was out buying the seven million batteries necessary to power all the kiddie gadgets, I heard this in line at every store I visited: "I TOLD him what I wanted and he didn't get it for me, at least now I can get it for myself on sale!"
How did we as a society let it come to this? How is it that we trained our children - and ourselves - to believe that even though a lot of lip service is paid to the idea that Christmas is truly about being with your loved ones, it really is all about the goods?
If the collapse of the credit markets and the bursting of the housing bubble is a natural market correction that will eventually make our economy stronger, then this first-of-a-series of Christmases where counting our blessings is the true centerpiece of the holiday will surely make our spirits stronger.
Despite every parent and grandparent's desire to make all our children's wishes come true - at least one day a year - not maxing out our credit cards on that fool's errand is a great lesson to pass on. It certainly won't be easy, but we'll have plenty of time to practice.
Next year, through the beginning of an economic recovery, and then in 2010 when the inflation resulting from the effects of (a successful) proposed stimulus plan start hitting us square in the pocketbook, there will have to be a re-interpretation of what Christmas means to our families.
Yes, Virginia, and sweet nephew, there is a Santa Claus.
And he loves you - as does your entire family - even if he doesn't swoop down the chimney with a pair of diamond earrings and the latest incarnation of Guitar Hero.
Esther J. Cepeda writes about Latino/Hispanic issues - and more - on www.600words.com