LENOX -- Why is the Spirit of Christmas Present so elusive as we count down to Dec. 25?

I thought it was just personal but other people have shared similar feelings. Even Christmas shoppers seem to be dialing back (and that may be a good thing for them if not for retailers). According to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based firm that compiles data at 40,000 stores across the country, the number of shoppers from Nov. 1 through last Sunday dropped 16.5 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

Certainly, there's much to be savored here this season.

The annual community production of "A Christmas Carol" at the Colonial Theatre has won raves from the budding 10-year-old critic who lives at our house. He proclaimed it "the best ever" and was especially thrilled by enhanced lighting effects.

The radio-play adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life," currently at Shakespeare & Company, provided one of the most enjoyable nights I've spent at a theater this year. Don't take my word for it -- The Eagle's professional critic, Jeffrey Borak, was similarly impressed.

There's great Christmas music everywhere -- in our local churches, at concerts by the region's choral groups, and on SiriusXM satellite radio's commercial-free holiday channels.

And for the true believers in our midst, the religious significance of the Christian calendar's most significant holiday remains uplifting and an unending source of spiritual sustenance.

So, what's missing? For me, it's the persistence not only of grinding poverty in our midst but also the struggles faced by middle-class families, even those with two or more paychecks coming in, to cope with food and fuel expenses, college costs, vehicle maintenance (try pricing a set of four new tires, for example) and all the other requirements of daily living.

It's also the loss of faith in government, even among those of us who are unabashed liberals, caused by the rollout fiasco of Washington's affordable health care program. Perhaps it will all be straightened out, but it requires a leap of faith to feel any degree of confidence.

Even our own state's popular, well-functioning health insurance system, viewed as the model for the national program, has suffered a severe setback because of website breakdowns.

It's good to know that our economy expanded at a "perky" 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed. Stronger consumer spending is credited, according to the Commerce Department report issued on Friday.

For those with the resources to invest in stocks, market indexes are up by about 25 percent so far this year. The Federal Reserve has tapered off its economic stimulus, a positive signal to economists on Wall Street and in Washington.

But on our nation's Main Streets, the glow of optimism is hard to detect.

We do seem to be living a Tale of Two Americas. According to the Census Bureau, 50 million people in this country, about 16 percent of the population, are officially classified as poverty-stricken. Fifty years ago, it was 19 percent. Not much improvement.

The safety net is badly frayed. A study from Columbia University shows that without strong government programs to aid the disadvantaged, 31 percent of the nation would be below the poverty line -- nearly 100 million people.

Over the next few weeks, long-term unemployment benefits are expiring for up to five million Americans. Food-stamp benefits have already been cut by 7 percent for nearly 50 million among us.

Middle-class jobs that pay a living wage have been disappearing. Only the college-educated, especially in high-tech fields (science, math, engineering, computer software design) can count on prosperity.

Much more could be added, but just these facts help explain why, for some if not many of us, Christmas Cheer is largely absent.

Sadly, "Joy to the World" this Christmas Eve will have a somewhat hollow ring.

But then there's always George Bailey, discovering that it's a wonderful life, after all. And old Ebenezer Scrooge, redeeming himself to become "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."

I think I've found the answer, in Charles Dickens' immortal prose. Let him, describing Scrooge, have the last words here:

"It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto