by Greg Howard

On the day a study came out of the Harvard Business School, warning that we Americans can’t go on giddily consuming goods instead of producing them, a flock of pricey Christmas catalogs flew in the door, spilling their fancies all over the carpet as if the party would never stop. Well, the statisticians at Forbes magazine tell us that the number of billionaires in the United States is now 492 (10 in Pennsylvania), while the richest 1 percent of Americans own more assets than the poorest 80 percent. So, you up there at the North Pole, thanks for another merry upscale Christmas.

When we say “upscale,” we are talking, fellow peasants, about a world where a silver hot water kettle whistles for $17,800 and a porcelain Romeo holds a porcelain Juliet, forever poised for a kiss, at $19,700. And these are the bottom-of-the-line goods. On Christmas morning there was a $23,000 hand-carved gold Piaget watch dangling from somebody’s stately tree and from somebody’s even statelier tree, a $225,000 platinum, ruby and diamond brooch.

Later in the day a woman threw on her new casual coat — a gray Russian broadtail with sleeves and collar of Barguzin sable for $69,500 — and walked her dog down some posh, snow-crusted avenue with an $14,500 18-karat-gold pooper scooper in one hand with the doggy’s name mounted in diamonds as an option. One does not joke about things like that.

And if it did not exist, who would make up stories about an art-deco gumball machine, set with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds and amethysts that sold for $100,000, but — this is the point — dispenses each little pink bubble-snapper for a mere penny? Somewhere in the country of the very rich, Civil War soldiers, 25 inches tall, marched at Christmas under either Confederate or Union banners but under a common price tag of $17,500 each.

At the bottom of a leather-lined chest in the library, solid-gold and sterling-silver knights and rooks rest in medieval repose, waiting to play out the ultimate joust of a $1 million chess game. How can either player be called a loser when the jewels on the board total 1,171 diamonds, 1,033 rubies, 459 sapphires and 59 emeralds?

When all the super-toys were assembled under the supertree, the fantasy of fantasies for the very rich (as for the very poor) seemed to be a car. To convey your guests to your chateau to inspect your other supertoys, a California company called Ultra Limousine Corporation recommended its 92-foot model, costing $32,510 per foot or a total of $3 million. This neat little buggy seats 35, leaving room among its pleasures for a 20-foot putting green, a jacuzzi, a microwave oven and what was modestly described as “a small swimming pool.” Some Santa’s sleigh!

Are we so rich? Are we so bored? Where will it end, this gold-plated Christmas that coexists with the Bethlehem manger, this Palace-of-Versailles America that shares the scene with the sleeping bodies of the street people above the grates? Like a cartoon, the contrast grows a little more extreme, a little more grotesque each Christmas season. It is clearly getting to be the next-to-the-oldest story ever told.

From pulpits all over the land, the clergy was moralizing once again on the “commercialism” of Christmas, to which were added these new secular sermons by economists from the Harvard Business School and elsewhere, preaching against spiraling debt, private and public. But as usual, the hue and cry of rebukes and prophecies could scarcely be heard above the sounds of Muzak in a thousand shopping malls, piping out “Jingle Bells.”

Christmas is a season when love and goodwill survive almost everything. But it seems a crime that we have to prove its resilience, year after year, by requiring Christmas to survive itself.