My daughters and I drove into the city last week. It was Wednesday, Nov. 19. My oldest girl reached over and turned on the radio, and we heard …

“Jingle Bells.”

Let me repeat the date: Nov. 19. Eight days before Thanksgiving. No telling how early this music started playing on the radio station – it just happened to be the date we heard it.

Whatever happened to the courtesy of at least waiting until Thanksgiving was over before flooding the airwaves with that hideous George Michael song, “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart”?

We’ve heard the complaints year after year about how much earlier retailers push Christmas on us. Immediately after Halloween, up go the decorations. They’d probably do it in September, but Halloween is too good a moneymaker for most stores, so at least they wait until Nov. 1 before putting up Santa Claus.

But until this year, I had never heard the radio preceding Thanksgiving with Christmas music. Why are they doing this? It doesn’t put me in a holiday shopping mood to hear “Jingle Bells” in mid-November. It only annoys me, like hearing “The First Noel” played over and over in July.

I know this is a desperate ploy to get us to shop earlier. I realize retailers are hurting, so I guess I can’t really blame them for pushing things. Christmas shopping has become the single event of the year that puts many businesses on an even footing. It’s not called Black Friday for nothing – it’s the day many retailers are pushed into the black (profit) instead of the red (loss). Still, the way I interpret the pre-Thanksgiving Christmas music or decorations or advertisements is, “Let’s get the troublesome and unprofitable holiday of Thanksgiving over so we can SHOP.” Sheesh.

While I’m inclined to sneer at ads for diamonds, designer clothing and luxury automobiles – as if these things (which I find useless) reflect the true meaning of Christmas – I must remember that ordinary people work at the places that sell diamonds, designer clothing and luxury automobiles. If we don’t buy those items, the sales clerks are out of a job. Then they can’t buy anything for their own kids for Christmas, much less pay their mortgage. So would I recommend that people shouldn’t buy those things? I guess not. No easy answer here.

But now is not the time to go into debt trying to buy love. The days of finally paying off your Christmas purchases by March or June are over.

Besides, it’s not really the retailers I find offensive. It’s the consumers.

Did you know that “We the People” of this country used to be called citizens? Now we’re called consumers. It’s our national duty to shop, we are assured. It’s patriotic. After 9/11, the most serious recommendation for recovery was for everyone to go shopping.

Now Black Friday has come and gone, and once again we witnessed herds of people making fools of themselves by lining up in subzero weather to storm the doors of Walmart at 4 a.m. We see them pushing, shoving, jostling, trampling, and otherwise acting like stampeding bison in order to grab a $20 DVD player. We see people die, mowed down by sheeple rushing for cheap stuff. Sickening.

Yes, it certainly makes me mindful of the significance of the season – Jesus’ birth – to act like herd animals for some piece of electronic gadgetry.

This is nothing new. The bison… er, the people do this year after year. But this year, for the first time, news stories about early-bird specials are outnumbered by stories about people’s financial restraint.

Good. We need some restraint.

It’s not that I object to giving gifts. Quite the contrary, I like giving and receiving stuff just as much as the next person. But for my husband and I, gift-giving took on a whole new meaning in 1992 when we left our corporate jobs and started our home business. We went through years of grinding poverty and learned to make do with scaled-down and homemade presents instead.

Yeah, I know the old arguments about how the best gifts are hand-made. That doesn’t cut the mustard if you’ve really been longing for a pair of diamond earrings, you know?

But the greatest gift we gave our children during those years was a warm bed, a roof over their heads, full bellies and our love and attention. These were the only things we could afford to give.

So we learned to cope. We learned to scale back. We learned, just like the Grinch, that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. And it worked! Our kids don’t yammer at us about the latest whiz-bang toy, or personal cell phone, or whatever the newest electronic gizmo is. And they understand what Christmas really represents. Kind of a neat concept.

Maybe that’s a concept that should spread.

We need to remember the Reason for the Season among all the exchange of presents. Giving gifts is a terrific idea, actually. But it’s the intangible gifts that are best: charity, mercy, forbearance, love. We all have an economic deficit, so to speak, in these areas.

Keep that in mind when you hear Madonna’s “Santa Baby” on the radio.

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