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Greene: Looks like Santa's cutting back this year

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  • Shoppers say they plan to cut holiday spending
  • Slow Christmas sales could lead to even bleaker January
  • "Mom and Dad can't afford to pay Santa," one parent says
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Award-winning writer Bob Greene is riding CNN's Election Express across the country in the final weeks before the election.

Kristina Miller says her kids understand Christmas gifts will be fewer this year.

ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS (CNN) -- Eleven days until the election, but suddenly there's another countdown that might weigh on Americans' minds just as heavily.

There are 62 days until Christmas -- and the economy appears to be frightening people to the extent that they are already accepting the idea they will be spending considerably less money on significantly fewer gifts this year.

That's what they have been saying to us as we cross the country.

And if it turns out to be true -- if retail merchants take a massive hit during the most important selling weeks of their year, and then the bleak days of January arrive -- the economic spiral that has been putting a chill into people all autumn may be about to enter new territory.

"I'm going to be buying little items this year, not large items," said Greta Leighty, 56. "I tend to go overboard at Christmastime, but not this year."

"That's the only thing we can do," said her husband, Bob Leighty, 69. We spoke with the Leightys inside the Town Center Mall in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, where we had stopped to find out how shoppers were contending with this dismal economic autumn. Video Watch how low Christmas expectations cost jobs in China »

"You get a little glimmer of hope when the stock market goes up a few hundred points after dropping 500 or 600 points," Greta Leighty said. "But then it drops again, and you realize we're still in a rut. Whoever the new president is, he'd better have it together the day he steps into office."

Some parents, we learned, are telling their children in advance: This Christmas will not be as lavish as last Christmas.

"I don't think we'll even be able to buy half as much for our kids this year," said Roger Kidd, 36, who was at the mall with his wife, Michelle, 31.

"We can't afford it, it's as simple as that," Michelle Kidd said. "Roger's had his hours cut at work -- the money's just not going to be there this Christmas."

There are six children to provide gifts for. "We're telling them real delicately, but we're telling them," Roger Kidd said. "I told our 6-year-old, 'Mom and Dad can't afford to pay Santa to make all of his toys,'" Michelle Kidd said.

The broader worry in West Virginia and elsewhere, of course, is that if this is a brutal Christmas season at America's stores, the bad news will carry over into 2009.

"Everyone I know is worried and holding their money a little closer this year," said Mike O'Brien, 60. "I think whether the new president is McCain or Obama, he's not going to be able to fix this right away. Because it didn't get to this point right away."

O'Brien said he is a devoutly religious man, and puts his trust in a higher power.

"I'm certainly not going to put my trust in a pension or a 401(k)," he said.

Susan Bostic, 42, said she fears conditions may, paradoxically, turn even more desperate if Americans don't make good on their vows to be more frugal this holiday season.

"People may be so depressed that they'll freak out and buy things they really can't afford," she said. "They'll know they can't afford it, but they'll do it just to make themselves feel a little better for a while.

"And then the bills will come due, and they won't be able to pay them. Or they'll go deep into their savings to pay their Christmas shopping bills, which will leave them worse off," Bostic said.

Kristina Miller, 29, was with her two children in the mall. "They're good kids," she said, as they listened. "They understand. Last year we went all out, but we know we can't this year."

She said that when she and her friends talk, the conversation often turns to their families' 401(k)s.

"Everyone's scared," she said. "No one knows what to do. Do you pull your money out? Do you keep it in and wait? You hear so many things, and you start to get the feeling that no one out there really knows."

Bill Howard, 84, said, "I can't control what's happening. I've lost a little money, but so has everyone else."

He was with his friend Beatrice Craig, 74, at the mall, but they hadn't come there to shop. They were walking, for exercise. No purchases planned.

As for a more parsimonious Christmas: "I've hinted about it to my grandchildren," Beatrice Craig said.

No one, you can assume, likes to have conversations like that with children as Christmas approaches. But there are two alternatives: disappoint them on Christmas morning, or have the discussion now, to get it out of the way.

"I tell them, 'Nana's going to give you what I can afford this year,'" she said.

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She doesn't enjoy saying it, because Christmas is Christmas.

And this year, once Election Day is past tense, it may be a holiday covered by a fresh and unwelcome frost of families' fears.

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