The only bells jingling for many families this season may be the calls from collection agencies.
For the 15.7 million workers unemployed, and perhaps especially for the 5.6 million of those people out of work for six months or more, the holidays present a host of challenges. There's the issue of money for gifts and all the other elements of the season. There's the temptation to slack off on job hunting until the new year, fueled by the false belief that "no one hires during the holidays." And there's the pressure to celebrate when it may seem there's little to be happy about.
"I hate to say this, but Christmas to me right now is just a date in the calendar," said Jeff Brown, a Phoenix resident who has been hunting for a new job since a June 2008 layoff.
Even in prosperous years, the holiday season sends some people into a funk. But it's possible to enjoy the season when you're unemployed, and even make it work to your advantage.
‘No Santa list this year’
Last year at this time, Brown, 57, recalls entering "major panic mode," as it became clear he'd need more than just a few months to replace the executive sales job he held for more than nine years.
He turned to his wife, Judy, for support. They took out the decorations, even though Judy was initially thinking about skipping that ritual. The couple shared small gifts and tried to count their blessings. "We were closer last year on Christmas than we ever have been, even though we had much less," Brown said. "Because we truly realized we had each other."
It's been another year without work — except for a 70-day stint as the director of business operations for a small company, which ended in a second layoff when revenue dropped off. That spot paid less than half the $100,000 plus commission that his former position paid. He's now earning just $11 an hour working a part-time job at a retailer, which offers irregular hours and doesn't produce nearly enough to pay the bills. Their credit cards are maxed out, and the bill collectors are calling.
"There's no Santa list this year," said Brown, who has two grown children, both of whom live in other states. "I have to find some other ways to make it happen for me."
Setting realistic expectations is key to making the season a happy one. When you're out of work, that means finding ways to celebrate the holidays that rely more on sharing experiences than on spending.
The Browns will spend time with neighbors and friends, and do some volunteer work at their church. Judy, who is self-employed as a personal assistant and caregiver for two elderly men, also plans to donate a turkey to the local homeless shelter, despite their tight funds. "I can fit $7.50 in my budget," she said.
Strike when the competition slacks
It's a myth that no jobs get filled during the last six weeks of the year, said Marc Cenedella, CEO of TheLadders.com, a job search site that advertises $100,000-a-year positions.
In fact, pounding the pavement now may make the difference between starting 2010 settling into a new position and competing for one.
"I can tell you as an absolute fact that January is the busiest job hunting time of the year," said Tony Lee, publisher of CareerCast.com. The people who are hired in January are usually those who applied and interviewed in prior months. "You don't hire somebody on Jan. 5 that you met on Jan. 3, you hire somebody you met in November or December," Lee said.
Companies with open jobs will often push to fill them before year end, especially if there is any concern about losing positions in next year's budget. Moreover, recruiters and hiring managers would like to end what's been a "dreadful year" on a positive note, Cenedella said.
Since other job hunters will take a holiday break, the competition is reduced. "Strike while they're on the sofa watching the Lions game," Cenedella said.
Brown spends about two to three hours a day on his job search. He regularly puts time into networking, which he believes is the key to finding a new spot.
While fighting his panic during the holidays last year, Brown was also inspired to reach out to others who share his predicament. He and Judy organized a group through their church to provide support and encouragement for people who are unemployed. It offers workshops addressing both practical issues, like resume preparation and finances while unemployed, and the emotional aspects of job hunting. More than 125 displaced workers took part this year, about 10 percent of whom have gotten jobs, Brown said.
That sort of effort can also help make things brighter in difficult times. "When we started this group, we didn't know if we would have one person show up," Judy said. "It was very rewarding."