Holiday Season Brings Solemn Reflections

December 22, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, guest essayist Nancy Gibbs of “Time” magazine considers what to value this holiday season.

NANCY GIBBS, Time: It feels different this year, walking down Fifth Avenue to see the lights. Are the windows mocking us now, gaudy and giddy, like it was just yesterday and all was well? Last year, Saks offered a $250,000 bottle of perfume.

The price included free delivery in a Bentley. This year’s Neiman Marcus’s catalogue offers an entire Dallas Cowboys end zone for half-a-million dollars.

But the store admits the outrageous gifts are mainly there to make us smile.

Fewer signs of holiday ostentation

Ostentation used to be a mark of vanity. Now it's a mark of folly, too.

If we have learned anything in this awful slump, it's that spending money you don't have can wipe out rich and poor alike.

I wonder if the sudden collapse of could consumer spending is our form of confession?

We know it was wrong to expect wealth without work, buy the flat-screen TV on credit, fund our schools with lottery tickets, blow the rainy day fund on $10 martinis because we had had a hard day.

This time of year, a little restraint might come as a relief.

Our holidays were supersized. They started sooner and lasted longer and cost more than nature ever intended. The extravagance made it easy to foregut that Hanukkah's Festival of Lights commemorates the miracle of divine sustenance in a time of scarcity. (MUSIC)

NANCY GIBBS: The Christmas story celebrates miraculous love in a temporarily homeless family.

So, this year, will we hear the stories differently? The Black Friday news about the Wal-Mart employee trampled to death as he opened the doors at dawn seemed to promise an especially Darwinian holiday season; only the fittest survive.

New challenges this season

But, listening to people talk, I hear something else, something uncertain, like we're facing a different kind of challenge than in holidays past.

A crisis is less likely to revise our true nature than simply reveal it. If we learn how brave we are when we face danger, we also learn how generous we are.

It's no accident that Mississippi often ranks as the most generous state, as well as the poorest. Wealth and safety have a way of making us hard and heedless.

But, in a meltdown, when many people taste fear and doubt about the future, we also feel other people's pain more sharply. The lights come on. The scales tip. We look around and recognize both our loss and our luck.

This may feel darker than any holiday in memory, and yet most of us know someone who has it worse. And the desire to help is powerful.

Employees at Boeing have tripled their cash donations to Northwest Harvest, which runs the state's largest food bank.

Seven in 10 adults plan to spend less on presents, but about half say they are more likely to give a donation, instead of gold or gadgets.

In World Vision's catalogue, $20 protects a family from Malaria; $75 buys a goat for a family in Haiti. December sometimes feels like one long final exam, a character test for many people of many faiths, whose holy days fall before year's end.

Have these last months left us humbled or hardened, bitter at all we think we have lost, or grateful for what we once took for granted?

Anxiety has a way of sharpening the senses, not just sights and sounds, the twinkle and jingle, but mercy and judgment about what to value and what to share.

I'm Nancy Gibbs.