Robert Gehrke: If what to get for the holidays is getting you down, try giving instead

(Bebeto Matthews | AP) People shop at Macy's department store during Black Friday shopping, Friday Nov. 29, 2019, in New York. Black Friday shoppers fought for parking spots and traveled cross-state to their favorite malls, kicking off a shortened shopping season that intensified the mad scramble between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I can pretty much pinpoint the time it hit me. I was sitting on the couch, top button undone, trying to stave off a Thanksgiving food coma to make it through “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and contemplating how I should get to the gym in the morning to do some sit-ups — which, of course, I didn’t.

Snoopy had served up the jelly beans and pretzels, Peppermint Patty had lost it, and they were loading in the car to go to grandma’s for a real feast, when that feeling of dread set in.

We were now officially in the Christmas season. I know, decorations and carols started showing up a month ago, but my resistance is futile at this point.

The line “Christmas is inside all of us” might explain why an otherwise pleasant Alpine soccer mom is willing to slice open a perfect stranger to get the last Baby Shark Dancing Doll at the Walmart Black Friday sale.

And woe unto those souls toiling in the Amazon warehouse, some of them scrambling miles and miles each day across a cavernous facility to make sure little Kyle gets the Alien X Dissection Kit with Slime that is on his wishlist.

I don’t blame Kyle. It looks freakin’ amazing!

But it comes at a cost, as an investigation by The Atlantic and the Center for Investigative Reporting found an alarming rate of workplace injuries in Amazon fulfillment centers as they have to lift thousands of items every day in order to make their next-day delivery promises.

The Amazon injury rate is double the average for similar operations. In one instance, when a fulfillment center experienced a gas leak, dizzy, vomiting workers were told they would have to use personal time if they wanted to leave.

It can all be a little soul-crushing for the average Utahn to navigate. Perhaps it explains why the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has seen a $350,000 increase in sales in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Pass the pinot, please.

Liquor is far from the only thing people are spending money on during the holidays. According to the National Retail Federation, the average American household is expected to spend $1,048 on holiday-related expenses, up about $40 from last year. Shoppers are expected to drop as much as $730 billion in November and December.

It’s a strain on many households. According to a study by the U.S. Federal Reserve earlier this year, three out of 10 adults would be unable to pay their bills or face serious hardship — forcing them to borrow money or forego paying other bills — if they were hit with an unexpected expense of $400.

One survey found that more than half of people feel a spike in financial stress around the holidays.

And of course there are thousands of Utah families living on the edge and hundreds of people who are homeless — as we’ve reported, Salt Lake City’s new shelters are already overflowing — for whom the immediate concern is more about finding someplace warm than putting a new Lego set under the tree.

Maybe at this point, you’re thinking I’m just a Grinch, which is fine with me, because I end up coming back to a line from the holiday classic: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

It does mean more. Or it should. The national retail survey found 70% of Americans plan to give to charities during the holidays. I assume the figure is probably higher in Utah.

That’s a sign that we can recalibrate how we approach the holidays, finding peace in simplicity and fulfillment in helping those in need.

And it wouldn’t kill you, or me, to do a few sit-ups.


If you are looking for causes to support, here are a handful of Utah organizations for your consideration (aside, of course, from The Salt Lake Tribune):

Volunteers of America assists populations who struggle with homelessness, addiction and mental illness in our Wasatch Front communities. https://www.voaut.org

Encircle offers housing and programs for LGBTQ+ youth in need. https://encircletogether.org/donate

Refugee Justice League provides legal assistance to refugees. https://www.refugeejustice.org

Utah Foster Care finds, trains and supports Utah families willing to provide a home to Utah’s more than 2,900 children in who are willing and able to provide a nurturing home. https://utahfostercare.org

The Inn Between shelters homeless Utahns facing a medical crisis or with terminal illnesses. https://www.tibhospice.org

Rising Star Outreach helps ensure educational opportunities and medical care to communities coping with leprosy. https://risingstaroutreach.org

First Step House provides behavioral health, addiction treatment and housing assistance to Utah’s homeless. https://www.firststephouse.org

Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault offers sexual violence education, prevention and response. https://www.ucasa.org/about

Robert Gehrke