When it comes to her clothing, Michelle Obama is nothing if not forward. Her openness to young designers is well known, as is her fondness for obscure labels. But when the U.S. first lady had to decorate the White House for Christmas this month, she went uncharacteristically retro, adorning one room with an 18½-foot Douglas fir and recycled ornaments that her team retrieved from a warehouse where old decorations were stored.
As Mrs. Obama goes, so does the U.S. and also Canada. Following last year's abrupt, deep drop in spending, North American retailers are turning back the clock this holiday season, pushing nostalgic, less ostentatious merchandise on a receptive public. They are banking on consumer-psychology notions that people turn to the comfortable and familiar during trying economic times.
In Vancouver, the decor emporium Liberty is seeing an increased appetite for holiday nostalgia, with traditional ornaments and table settings outselling modern merchandise at the store.
"There's a coziness to traditional settings, which often imply prosperity even if they aren't expensive," chief executive Don Thomas says. "They're also more practical [because]they work well with things that people already have."
Some of Liberty's top sellers this season include patchwork stockings and retro silver piggy banks.
Nostalgic motifs have also taken over Toronto's Teatro Verde. All three of the upscale store's themes are throwbacks: old Hollywood glamour in silver, white and gold, a retro sixties look in Andy Warhol pop art colours and an "old boys' club" equestrian theme rife with old watches, trophies, faux fur and feathers.
"All of the themes are looking back. None of them is futuristic or out there," owner Shawn Gibson says.
Gibson adds that consumers are willing to spend on their decor this year because they're staying close to home: "They're not getting on planes. They want to nest and have people over."
Retro is also taking hold in the toy market. Freshly opened in Toronto, Auggie sells handmade, wooden toys as an antidote to "all the plastic we see," manager Danielle Williamson says.
The shop's whimsical windows in Yorkville feature wooden puzzles; the store also sells traditional clothing - unbranded and logo-free - as well as handmade knit toys and wooden cars and boats.
"They remind people of the toys they had as kids," Williamson says. "They're not cutting-edge or technological. In a world of things that are overdone, these are a bit more simple. It's a breath of fresh air."
In periods of financial and social strain, play becomes more traditional, notes Harold Chizick, a spokesman for the Canadian Toy Association, which represents toy manufacturers.
"During economic downturns, times when people need to pull back a little bit, classic play patterns and recognizable names always resonate better with consumers," he says.
According to the association, board games and puzzles are selling well, as are updated versions of popular toys from the past, such as an Etch-A-Sketch now outfitted with a joystick.
"There's comfort food, and there are comfort toys. The comfort and familiarity that come with certain names transcend generations," Chizick says, adding that the popularity of certain toys is a "temperature gauge" on how society weighs its family values.
"Things like board games speak to family gathering: People can play them together. It's a social event."
And traditional can be frugal, he says.
"[Board games]can help spread the dollars further because they appeal to the whole family rather than just one member of the family."
For many children, traditional family time over a board game or another activity can trump even this season's wildly popular mechanized hamsters, says Carole Slotterback, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of The Psychology of Santa . Published in September, the book examines more than a thousand letters by children to Santa.
"The kinds of things that children ask for may surprise you," Slotterback says. "The 'must-have' gifts - like these [Zhu Zhu]hamster things - aren't necessarily being requested," she adds, noting that wishes for fight-free family time and world peace often outnumber material ones.
Slotterback suggests that nostalgic traditions, such as "stringing popcorn together to put on the tree or making cookies together to give as presents to the neighbours," have always ultimately overcome the perceived consumerism of children.
"They are things you can do [to create memories]with your child," she says.
Is an evening of popcorn-stringing and cookie-making in store for Sasha and Melia this season? Mrs. Obama's holiday choices so far suggest that it very well might be.