A chance to remember what the holidays are for

For the most part, the economic meltdown of 2008 seems sudden; it only took a week or two for "The fundamentals of the economy are strong" to mutate from a throwaway line in political speeches to a claim so powerfully absurd that it blew up a presidential campaign.

But at deeper level, was it really that sudden? Tell me that you haven't been queasy these past few years about the economy — the no-money-down-and-0%-interest-until-2010 promotions, the sprouting of payday loan storefronts across every American town, the "no-document" lending that gave big mortgages to anyone who said they could afford them, the cancerous growth of every kind of debt. Unless you figured out a way to ignore the big picture entirely, you've known this couldn't last.

All of this pretend money has fueled a decade of consumption — some of it satisfying, some of it a joyless effort to fill a hole that stuff can't fill — at an ever-faster pace and on an ever-growing scale. Shopping and consumption has seeped so deeply into our cultural bones that we've created an unofficial national holiday to honor them.

It took place yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Throngs of people across the country finished their pumpkin pie on Thursday, packed the car with sleeping bags and hot thermoses, and headed for the mall to camp overnight. That's how you get a spot at the front of the line when big-box doors open at 4 or 5 a.m., and that's where you need to be to score one of the scarce $19 microwave ovens or $200 flat-screen TVs that everyone else wants, too. It's not a pretty picture when those doors open.

That's the picture that inspired the Abundance Swap. The idea bubbled up on the morning before Thanksgiving in 2002, as I was reading headlines on the public radio talk show I hosted at the time. The pre-dawn shopping mobs on Friday morning were expected to be bigger than ever (they've been bigger than ever every year), and I wondered out loud what space aliens were thinking if they were observing this tribal ritual from a distance.

Could we do the holidays differently? Well, there's Buy Nothing Day, also falling, not coincidentally, on the day after Thanksgiving (see www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd). BND is a creative, hard-nosed effort to roust us from our consumption trance, but for some people it has a Grinchy taste that goes down hard. The holidays, after all, are supposed to be about giving, and giving feels good. If anything we want to do more of it.

Some determined folks have found new ways of giving that are less tangible and often more meaningful than you can find in stores. But what if you really like the old-fashioned gifting, colorful boxes that you can watch friends and family suspensefully unwrap, revealing actual tangible stuff inside? Is there a way to give stuff that doesn't fuel the overheated consumption machine?

Yes. We already have plenty of stuff. What's in your closet? Or attic, or garage, or storage shed? If you're like most of us, there are probably things you haven't used in years and may never use again. Some of it's junk. But if you look carefully, won't you also find a few useful, interesting or beautiful items that someone would love to receive as a gift?

Maybe these goodies have sat on the shelf long enough. Maybe it's time to rotate the stock — your nice stuff, mine and that of a few hundred of our neighbors — to generate an inventory of quality gifts that don't demand another ounce of the planet's resources, or a dime from wallets that are feeling especially thin this year.

That's what the Abundance Swap has aimed to do in Ashland since 2002. A small group of us will host the seventh annual event at the Historic Ashland Armory (our thanks to the DeBoer family) on Thursday, Dec. 11, starting promptly at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:45) and running until about 8:30 p.m.

If you come, there are a few rules — we've purposely kept them few — you need to understand. Be sure to read them at www.abundanceswap.org. We'll explain the process more fully at the event itself.

Is the Abundance Swap for you?

If you're ready to bask in generosity, to stretch your old ideas about giving and receiving, to let go of the ancient anxiety that you might not get your fair share, then it is. You're likely to find some good gifts for people you care about, and an even better one that won't fit in a box for yourself.

Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com).

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