This time every year, along with the Muzak carols and the proliferation of advertising supplements in the local newspaper, one can always count on a Catholic newspaper editorializing on the orgy of consumerism that unfortunately now typifies the Christmas season. Even this newspaper has been known to indulge in a Catholic “bah, humbug.” 

Of course, our families feel all the same pressures and guilt and greed, but we pat ourselves on the back that at least we’re not the ones trampling people at Walmart to get a steal on a television, or maxing our credit cards to outdo friends and family with expensive gifts, or rushing with the herd to buy whatever Oprah has proclaimed the latest “must have.” 

Alas, self-congratulation is no better a Christmas spirit than consumerist excess (as Scrooge and the Grinch have already told us). 

This year, however, maybe everyone is feeling a bit grinchy. Consumerism seems a whole lot less exuberant, with the national mood subdued by high rates of joblessness, a stagnant economy and all the uncertainty that brings. 

It is also overshadowed by somber talk in Washington about what the Government Accountability Office is describing as our nation’s fiscally “unsustainable” path. The national debt (which according to the U.S. Treasury stood at the end of last month at $13,794,243,004,364.88) is projected to continue to balloon on its current course. Entitlement benefits — primarily health care and Social Security payments — alone are calculated to exceed government income by more than $40 trillion over the next 75 years. 

Of course, relatively speaking, what the United States is facing is nothing nearly as cataclysmic as the debt crisis threatening country after country in the European Union. 

So Americans have not taken to the streets, and many of us are ducking the mind-numbing details of the national debt and federal deficit. It might just be that lack of urgency that will convince the U.S. Congress to do nothing serious now to address our long-term structural problems — because any solution will mean choking down a politically toxic cocktail of spending cuts and raised taxes, like the recent recommendations of the White House’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. 

Given all this, some may be tempted to cheer on those unbridled Christmas consumers as a sort of new national patriot, doing their duty to hopefully spur our economy past our debt. 

But that’s precisely the problem. The same spirit that permits a person to elbow aside another to grab a consumer electronic device is the same one that got our country in this profligate mess — and, more ominously for the future, is one that could mean indifference to the suffering of society’s weakest members as we try to claw our way out of it. 

What it boils down to is putting things before people — the precise opposite of the Christmas message. This season is a call to be generous, opening our eyes to truly see and value all of our weakest brothers and sisters — the elderly, sick, homeless and jobless, or a babe swaddled 2,000 years ago in a manger, surrounded by shepherds. 

That is the expectation we should have of ourselves, and of our society’s approach to the challenges. “Man can be recognized by his expectations,” Pope Benedict XVI said a few weeks ago in an Advent reflection. “Our moral and spiritual ‘stature’ may be measured by what our hopes are.” 

In the hard decisions that inevitably will follow this Christmas, we must ask ourselves what our expectations are, and where our hope lies.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor