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In Johnson City, Tenn., a town tucked into the state's far northeast corner, Christmas lights and decorations brighten the streets and shops, and shoppers mill about, brimming with gifts for family and friends.
Anthony with some of his homemade superheroes. (Photo courtesy of Timothy St. John)
Timothy St. John and his son, 3-year-old Anthony, can just watch.
"We won't be rolling a shopping cart full of gifts through the checkout line this year," St. John says, even though his son clamors for many of the toys he spots on shelves.
"He keeps asking for a $30 Iron Man toy that talks and lights up," St. John shared in a story he wrote for Yahoo News. "Anthony loves the Avengers, especially Iron Man, who he knows shares his same first name. But I have to tell him he cannot have it.
" 'You have toys at home,' I say."
Those toys—some action figures and toy cars—are recycled from St. John's own youth, items he played with when he was Anthony's age. "He loves to play with Spider-Man, and has me play as the superhero's nemesis, Venom, acting out his favorite cartoons," St. John says. "My wife thought I was silly to keep the old toys, but they've come in handy in these financially tight times."
St. John quit his job as an inventory associate at Walmart a few years ago to stay home with Anthony so his wife could work. Pocketbooks soon thinned, and collection agencies began calling, looking for payments on loans and credit cards. A robust Christmas isn't viable.
"Anthony doesn't understand that the money just isn't there," St. John says.
The solution? Father and son make toys—Anthony's favorite superheroes—together from scratch.
"We make them from paper, from sticks, from whatever we have, and we fashion his favorite characters," he says. "They don't speak or light up, but for a little boy, they still feel like presents."
It's Christmastime in a still-down economy. 7.7 percent of the country remains unemployed, and 49.7 million Americans are stuck in poverty; meanwhile, the National Retail Federation estimated in October that consumers planned $749.51 in individual spending this holiday season, up a scant 1.2 percent from 2011. The group's president called it a "pattern of cautious optimism."
But how do those numbers relate to personal, tangible stories? The St. Johns are one of several cash-drained families who helped Yahoo News compare families against figures this week. We asked them to share their accounts and tell us: How do they break the news to their children that presents won't spill out from under the tree this year? How do their children respond to this unpleasant news? How do families keep the holiday's spirit alive, sans a $200 Xbox and a $50 Furby? Here are few of their perspectives.
Ronald and Ben in front of the Kings' house. (Photo courtesy of Frederick King)
"We did not put up the Christmas tree again this year," Frederick King says. "My children are used to it now."
That exemplifies the last few Christmases for King, whose 11- and 9-year-old boys, Benjamin and Ronald, have learned not to get too excited about Santa visiting their Ohio home.
Since 2009, when King lost his job at a major retailer, he and his wife, Diana, have scraped together funds for their kids' presents.
"Usually we can swing at least one or two gifts for each," he says, but he estimates their Christmas budget this year is nonexistent.
Ben wants a violin, which he's learning to play in an after-school program. There's one for $39 that King spotted online, but there's no money for it. Ronald has his eyes on an iPod or Android tablet. At $49.99, that's too much, too.
It's the family's limited budget that makes it tough: A monthly welfare check has run out. King's wages from a part-time cashier job, Ben's Supplemental Security Income (he has Asperger's syndrome), and rent from King's older son, 22-year-old Joseph, don't cover day-to-day bills, much less Christmas gifts.
"I have told both children that Santa brings the presents, but the mommies and daddies must give him the money for the presents first," King says. "This way they are aware that they must work for what they have and not to expect a free handout."
When Ben told his dad he hoped his family had enough money to pay back Santa for the violin, he said he would understand if they didn't.
"They know that times have been hard. They know that we have not been able to pay Santa very much this year," King says.
Angel, working on a do-it-yourself Christmas gift. (Photo courtesy of Candes King Meisenheimer)
For Christmas, 9-year-old Angel asked Mom for a $20 set of solid-state tires for her wheelchair.
"But that's $20 we just don't have this year," says her mom, Candes King Meisenheimer, of Prescott, Ariz. "I was forced to tell her that it might not happen."
Neither can she afford to give 12-year-old Geneva a video game from last year that's marked down to $19.95.
"Their initial reaction was a total lack of amusement," Meisenheimer says.
Her story is not dissimilar to other people's: Her husband lost a job in Phoenix a few years ago. Times turned turbulent, and they moved to an old family farm 100 miles away. Her husband worked a part-time job that paid little more than minimum wage.
"This year it looks like it's going to be a choice between presents and food," she says.
That's unless the presents are handcrafted, which is the route the family is taking this season. Reclaimed materials from the house or easily-had freebies are fodder for gifts the kids are constructing. A couple of wooden pallets and unused paint transformed into a CD shelf. Old, formal drapes found new life as decorative pillow shams, valences and trim on a patchwork quilt. Assisting are Mom, Dad, an adult sibling with a driver's license and a daily glance at Craigslist.
"The majority of what the kids get this year will be handmade," Meisenheimer says, "with a few candy canes thrown in for good measure."
Putting the word "gift" in quote marks breaks a mother's heart.
This Christmas, the "gift" for Diane Lee's daughter is a coat, something more a need than a want.
For her 10-year-old son, the "gift" this year is paying for water-repair bills after a leak caused major damage to his bedroom floor.
"I have always loved Christmas," the West Dallas mom says. "However, this year, I struggled with finding joy in knowing that I cannot give my children the things that they want because I am struggling to provide them with the things that they need."
Her daughter started junior high this year and wants an art set for her art classes. Her son—whom she calls "vibrant and all boy!"—loves Lego's Hero Factories and wants the Witch Doctor and Black Phantom for Christmas.
"But they cost about $50 a piece," Lee says, "and while $100 used to be a quick grocery trip, now it pays my water bill."
She works full-time as a teacher, but it's her family's only income. Add in a move and other debt, and it entails a sparse Christmas. But she says she was awestruck by her kids' reaction: Instead of complaining, they said they understand Christmas means more than Legos and art supplies.
"I don't have money to spend on fancy gifts, but as long as my children are cared for and we have a warm home, we will still celebrate Christmas," Lee says.
"Christmas will not be spectacular this year," says Emma Salkill.
Nathan, her 35-year-old son, is mentally disabled, functions like a 5-year-old and still believes in Santa Claus. He's asked Santa for a new stereo and an Inspector Gadget costume.
"That's a couple of hundred bucks, at least," she says.
Years ago, her daughter, Brandy, now 22, learned from school kids that Santa wasn't real. Salkill told her that it's family that carries on the Saint Nick tradition, and every family has its own Santa: "It could be Mom, Dad, or Aunt Linda, but that each family had their own."
That's her lesson: Make your own Santa, make your own Christmas. Her tips:
"Call churches; many of them will help with a gift or two. Your local Salvation Army or Goodwill organization will also donate toys, food and clothing. Call friends and trade toys that kids no longer use. Make items yourself; look at a craft store for ideas and supplies. Go to dollar-theme stores, if you have a few bucks, and select some gifts there. Consider thrift-store purchases. Have a lot of family togetherness; play board games and watch movies together. Pop some popcorn and make it the best Christmas that you can."
"You might want to cry," Salkill says. "But keep a good attitude; it will make all the difference."
Read more stories that readers shared about celebrating Christmas with little money: