" . . . What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; . . . balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?" --Scrooge, "A Christmas Carol"
Wouldn't that 19th-century literary antagonist be surprised -- or heartened -- to learn about the Charlottesville, Va., residents who share some of his views on Christmas spending?
The new organization, called S.C.R.O.O.G.E. (The Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges), was born basically because its members are tired of seeing people spend too much money at Christmas and they believe that with solid support, over-spenders can be rehabilitated.
"We are not anti-Christmas," says cofunder Charles Langham, 38. "And more important, we're not anti-kids. But basically, what we'd like to see is a return to the old ways, instead of today's buy, buy, buy.
"I know folks who don't think anything of spending $1,000 for a gift, even when they don't have it and they know they'll spend the next two years paying for it. Now, I'm not that bad, but in my worst days, I've gone in and, for one gift, spent $200-$300.
"I'm a likeable, generous man," he adds soulfully, "who would love to love Christmas again."
Langham, a technical editior for the Department of Army, Charlottesville, sees the whole thing escalating, due to a spiraling economy, ready credit, guilt-giving and of course the classic, "I-never-had-anything-when-I-was-a-child-and-mine-should-have-the-best" routine.
"One man who called us all the way from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) opened his interview with 'What have you got against Christmas?'" marvels S.C.R.O.O.G.E. co-founder, Terry Pettit, 40, also an Army technical editor.
"The answer is nothing.' There is no grand crusade. We just want to give others who might feel frustrated and pressured a forum for thoughts and a support system that says you can show caring without forcing yourself into bankruptcy."
There are no formal functions, no duties and no elected officers.
"There will be membership cards, though, with our five 'suggestions' written right there," says Langham. "Every time you reach for your wallet, there's the card. We think it'll offer strength and encouragement."
"People spend more on batteries today than they did on the whole Christmas when I was kid," says Petit. "Santa's on the payroll of the Merchants' Association."
"And when we were all kids things seemed better," laments Langham. "We got one large gift and some clothes. And the obligatory socks. But there was a feeling of completeness. The family would come in and visit. We'd get together and sing, sit by the fire.
"What happens today is, children come down Christmas morning and there's all this stuff. It's just too much emotional expectation, react and react still more. The emotional circuitry is too much for kids. And the grown-ups. They're morose, even with all the Betamaxes, stereos and cameras and other adult toys -- expensive ones."
S.C.R.O.O.G.E. alternatives to excessive giving include homemade projects, gifts of candles, sewing. Or visits to the sick and elderly.
"People will be getting some excellent peach preserves from my wife and me, says Pettit, "a little less than . . . viscous.
"If a Christmas present is a visible sign of one's affection," he muses, "isn't time the important aspect? The time you spend, not the money, is the key to the successful gift."
Anyone can join the group for a lifetime membership of $2.50. That money, say the men, will defray printing costs of cards and newsletters to contact members and provide alternatives to checkbook Christmases.
Though membbership statistics aren't yet available, S.C.R.O.O.G.E., which started out with a sample card printed in the Charlottesville newspaper, has drawn queries from Toronto and Edmonton, Canada; Anchorage; Chicago; Providence, R.I., London and Liverpool.
"Those folks in Canada can use S.c.r.o.o.g.e.," says Pettit with a laugh. "Do you know anything about a Christmas exhibit in Toronto -- this is no joke -- they called 'christ-o-rama? It's unbelievable. We're just a couple of old fogies. And we think there are a lot more out there.
"One thing's for sure. We're popular in London, England."