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Down but not out for the holidays: For Yahoo’s jobless readers, season poses a challenge

The Lookout

For most Americans, the holidays are a time for happiness and celebration with family and friends--or at least for a few precious days of hard-earned relaxation. But when you're out of work and struggling to get by, the season can make things even harder.

Barry Viprino, a 30-year old financial adviser from Cape Cod, Mass., has been jobless for a year, and his family of five has been living in a one-room apartment. "It is hard looking myself in the mirror, or my kids in the eye," he told us. "For Christmas, they keep asking if we can just get a house. And I have to explain that, Santa cannot give us a house."

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Barry Viprino and family

Four years into the Great Recession and the jobless recovery that's followed, we've become inured to the grim statistics. More than 13 million Americans are still officially out of work, and more than four in 10 of them are considered long-term unemployed--they've been jobless for six months or longer. But personal accounts like Barry's--or like one from Norman Spooner of Spencer, Iowa, who explained why he's staying home alone for Christmas this year while his wife visits their grown children: "I am too ashamed to go because I have nothing to offer" -- still hit home.

Over the summer, we asked Yahoo News readers to tell us what it's like to be out of work for an extended period. We got thousands of compelling responses, which we used to create an up-close look at the plight of the unemployed -- a project we called Down But Not Out. For the next installment, we put out a call last week for more stories, this time about how the jobless are coping with the holidays. And once again, readers responded with some fascinating, poignant, heartfelt tales, that help create a rich, nuanced picture of prolonged joblessness in America.

We've posted some of them, in full, on the separate Tumblr site we created for the project. And we've excerpted some below.

"We have started writing letters to one another."
It's not all doom and gloom. To enjoy the season, some readers have been forced to get creative --and even have found some unexpected sources of contentment.

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Kellie Norton with her son Justin, at his graduation from U.S. Airforce basic training

Kellie Norton, 38, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a single mother who lost her job in a department store in March after her autistic 13-year old son became ill and she had to change her schedule. "He doesn't understand that Mommy has no money for presents," she wrote.

Still, she's looking on the bright side. "We won't be traveling anywhere this year. I can not afford the gas," she told us. "I will be bundling my son up on Christmas Eve though. We will spend the few dollars in gas to drive around the city and see all the Christmas lights. The heat in my truck no longer works, so it's gloves and hot chocolate to stay warm. But that's OK. If there is one thing my son loves, it is Christmas lights."

"I can't give anybody anything for Christmas," wrote Paul M., 25, who lost his job three months ago with a contractor at Chicago's Midway Airport. "The least I could do is take some of the food stamps I'm expecting soon and buy materials to make homemade pretzels for my family and friends.  The only downside is they'll be hard once they get them."

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Dina Johnson with her grand-daughter

Dina Johnson, 39, from southeast Idaho, who lost her job over two years ago, told us she's found a good way to let her loved ones know what they mean to her."We have started writing letters to one another," she wrote. "Mainly the letters are sharing how the other person is important in our lives and what little things they have done to strengthen that relationship."

Heather Yeager, 26, from Tampa, Fla., lost her job at a hospital two months ago, and is facing eviction from her home, along with her four kids, all under the age of 6. "I can't just go out and buy my kids things for Christmas like I would like," she wrote, "so I find myself on the Internet looking at Craigslist ads for things people are giving away for free so that my kids can have some sense of Christmas."

Kevin S., a 48-year-old Californian, told us that last year he was unemployed and couldn't afford gifts for his young son, a big SpongeBob fan. "So I found a yellow and pink sponge in our bathroom," Kevin wrote. "I drew SpongeBob's eyes, nose and mouth on the yellow sponge and cut the pink sponge into a star for the Patrick character. He absolutely loved them and took them everywhere he went. A friend of mine saw them and laughed and said: 'Recession, huh?' 'Yup,' I told him."

"I am always so relieved when Christmas is over"
Still, a lot of readers wrote about the pain of being unable to afford to buy gifts or plan celebrations.

"I always feel like I am missing out on something," wrote Brenda Tlapa, 44, of Bedford Park, Ill., who lost her job at a Fortune 500 design company back in 2008, and is scheduled to lose a warehouse position this Friday. "I see others shopping and spending money, and I honestly get a little upset and resentful. I have absolutely no money to spend on gifts, nothing to give my mother (who means the world to me) and nothing to give my nieces and nephews."

"I am always so relieved when Christmas is over," she added. "It's like a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders."

Spooner, who told us he's spending the holiday alone because he's shamed about being unable to afford gifts, appears to feel the same way this year. "I cannot watch any TV shows or movies that are Christmas themed," he wrote. "I cannot go into any stores during the season because it hurts to see all the Christmas gift wrap, decorations and shoppers. If I am watching TV and a Christmas-related commercial comes on, I immediately have to mute the TV and turn away. I have always loved Christmas and have never missed a Black Friday shopping day, until this year."

Tom H., 57, who lives near Austin, Texas, and has been looking for work for more than two years, is making sacrifices. "My wife asked me for some face wash for Christmas, with tears in her eyes, saying it is something she can't afford to buy anymore," he told us. "I plan on finding something else I can sell to try to order that for her."

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K. Smith

Meanwhile, K. Smith (she asked to be identified that way), 50, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, whose job with a defense contractor was outsourced to China, is cutting back. "There will be little Christmas in our house," she wrote. "Some stocking-stuffers are wrapped in newspaper under a Charlie Brown tree.  No turkey or ham waits to be served on fancy linen . . . . No, it'll be simple fare, biscuits and gravy, spaghetti and such."

And for Mike Famous of Skippack, Penn., who's been out of work around two years, Christmas is a difficult reminder of better days. "You damn sure don't think about Christmas," he wrote. "If you do, it's only in the sentimental, wayward sense that you have some distant memory as a kid or of when you were with your kids and times were good . . . . I can recall the night before Christmas like it was the night before PARADISE. Those were the days, as they say. Now twenty bucks for a tree is twenty bucks I ain't got. Twenty bucks is three dinners if I work at it. Keep the tree and let me eat."

"The holidays . . . act as a sort of a fun-house mirror that exaggerates the divide of the have's and have-not's."

Not surprising, then, that for many jobless readers, the season brings as much anxiety and tension as comfort and joy.

"Rather than the holidays meaning a time to be with family and friends . . . we barely have the energy to get out of bed and get through the day," wrote Cullen S. of Austin, Texas, who started his own business just as the economy went south, and is now $40,000 in debt. "We want to say that everything will be OK. We want to believe that we have had tough times before and that we will get through it. We know the mantras and platitudes that line bumper-stickers and 'can do' books. But we can't see it."

"The holidays are difficult as they as they act as a sort of a funhouse mirror that exaggerates the divide of the have's and have-not's," wrote Jesse Prestella, 38, of Santa Rosa, Calif., who was laid off  more than two years ago. "I have to marvel at commercials that feature big red bows on brand new cars and wonder to myself if someone out there could really buy a car for someone as a gift? Or ads for the perfect-cut diamond. I am reminded of Sara's lonely engagement ring that's tucked in an envelope at the pawn shop, hoping to be picked up before being tagged and put in the display."

Prestella added that his marriage has taken a toll. "As time marches on, the ties that my wife and I share have been strained," he added. "Arguments and resentments have overtaken our love and humor. Mean-spirited bickering and eye-rolling have become our own personal dialect."

For Chris B., 45, of Atlanta, who was laid off from his job as an editor at CNN after 17 years, "there is no rest or relaxation." Friends tell him to treat his jobless stint like a vacation, he told us. But that's not how he sees it. "A vacation has, at the end of its tunnel, returning to work attached to it," Chris wrote. "I am not on vacation. I am on 'Job Hunt' at the worst possible time of year.  Stress? If there were a poster child for stress, there wouldn't be a big enough poster to show me."

"Our family has already found holiday fun in driving around looking at Christmas lights and free local holiday celebrations," Jake Moyer, 35, who's been out of work for four years and lives in northern Alabama, told us. "Although, we still have to be careful about the amount of gas we use. With every potential fun outing there is hidden stress."

"As a parent, that hurts me the most, that I can't get my son anything."
Many jobless readers couldn't bear the thought of disappointing their kids.

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Jeff B.

Jeff B., 42, an engineer from Loveland, Colo., has been out of work for nearly two and a half years, and has a young son who's getting excited for the holiday. "He wants some toys from Santa, but he will get nothing, we can't afford it," Jeff wrote. "I'm not sure how he will take not having anything under the tree. As a parent that hurts me the most, that I can't get my son anything."

Barry Viprino, the unemployed financial adviser from Cape Cod, told us he's wondering whether to let his kids go on believing in Santa at all. "I don't want to ruin their joy and break their hearts, but is it better than them feeling that they are bad or not worthy?," he wrote. "I asked my wife this and she said that I shouldn't tell them. But I just don't know."

And Kim M., 41, whose husband was recently laid off after being underemployed for three years, said she's even had to curb her kids' impulse to help others. Her 7-year-old recently asked if they could buy a toy angel to support their local church. "Because my husband was just laid off, I said, 'Daddy doesn't have a job right now, maybe if he gets one soon, we can pick another angel,' " Kim wrote. "As a parent, it is my responsibility to nurture my children's natural generosity. But at some point, do you stop giving because it puts your own future at risk?"

Reporting assistance by Galen Bernard.

A note on identification in this story: Where readers have given their permission, we've identified them by their full name. Some asked not to have their full names included. Several were concerned about the impact on their job search; one didn't want family members to identify her; and another worried about being tracked down by bill collectors.

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