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A gloomy Christmas from Paris to Hong Kong

Families around the world are cutting back on Christmas expenses as they try to keep the fires of festive cheer burning in tough economic times.
German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld unveils Christmas decorations in a department store in Paris.Christophe Ena / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Christmas is not canceled, and Scrooge would still find plenty of merriment to cry "Humbug!" about. But from Paris to Hong Kong and beyond, families are cutting back on Christmas expenses as they try to keep the fires of festive cheer burning in tough economic times.

For some, the crisis means no presents for close family or giving useful presents, like clothes or books. For others, decorations and Christmas vacations are out, economy-drives are in.

Pollsters Gallup say Americans' planned Christmas spending is at a 10-year low. In France, supermarkets have trimmed their orders of Champagne, unsure whether revelers will be in the mood for — or able to afford — much bubbly.

Ilic Ljubica, an unemployed welder window-shopping in Paris, said that for her, buying gifts is "going to be impossible this time because my bank account is empty... It's more likely to be homemade gifts." The 20-year-old from Chartres in northwest France had set her sights on a seafood Christmas dinner but now isn't sure she can afford it.

But one thing many shoppers agree on: for kids, the Christmas magic must be preserved intact. Paris toy store director Sophie Lieng says her customers "don't want their children to notice what's going on."

French post officer worker Annie-Claude Taillefond said she, her mother and sister have agreed to forgo gifts but that her 8-year-old son will still get the computer game, roller-blades and board game he has asked for.

"Things are super-tight this year," she said. "We'll limits things to the children."

"Christmas is the children," said Elisabeth Dietrich, visiting Paris from Strasbourg in eastern France. "That's not where you make cuts. If you do have to cut back, it's on the amount spent on the adults."

Dietrich, who cares for elderly people with Alzheimer's, said she normally spends about euro70 ($90) per person on gifts at Christmas but is trimming that to euro50 this year. And she started shopping for gifts in October to spread the expense over three months.

Turkey, foie gras and wine from late-harvested grapes in her home region of Alsace will still be on her Christmas menu. "We won't break from tradition," she said.

But fancy decorations, "frankly, we can let them drop," she said. "You can be simple and festive at the same time."

Gallup's chilly predictions for Christmas spending in the United States came from a poll in mid-November, with 1,009 people interviewed by telephone. Respondents said they would spend $616 on average on gifts, the lowest amount in the past decade. That compared to $866 last year. Nearly half of the respondents said they plan to spend less this year than last.

In Hong Kong, the Retail Management Association is forecasting a possible 5-8 percent drop in Christmas sales figures. People seem generally to be spending smaller amounts on gifts and travel bookings out of Hong Kong appear "very weak," association chairwoman Caroline Mak said in an e-mail response to questions.

In Britain, financial services firm Deloitte says it expects many consumers to entertain at home, rather than lavish money on clubs, pubs and restaurants, with families gathered around computer games — a 21st-century update on playing charades or singing carols around the tree.

"This year, it's all about 'in-tertainment,'" Tarlok Teji, the head of Deloitte's UK retail section, wrote in a report. "Staying in has become the new going out."

French supermarkets are going easy on Champagne.

"Generally, the supermarket sector places its big Christmas order in September. This year, amid all this disturbance, they have been cautious and have said, 'We're not ordering much stock,'" said Joelle Jezequel, a spokeswoman for Remy Cointreau, which makes Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck Champagnes. "It's precautionary, because we don't know how the French will react."

Admiring the festive window displays at the Le Printemps department store, a no-cost fun feature of the Christmas season in Paris, legal secretary Joelle Denouel said she has scoured the Internet for good buys and bought gifts earlier this year to take advantage of special offers. She has also been turned to the Web to find a charity to donate to — something she usually does not do, but feels is necessary this time.

"Because of the economic situation, I'm touched by things more this year," she said. "People are in need."