When you pop fresh batteries into the Christmas cam and train the flashing scope on Junior

as he unwraps his FastAction Supergross Latex Vomit(TM), will your credit card balance be niggling at the back of your mind? If you racked up debts for Junior's Christmas joy, and you're the kind of person who takes comfort in facts that are irrelevant to your predicament, you might take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Consider:

* Personal debt, according to the Federal Reserve, totals more than a trillion dollars;

* Credit card delinquencies are the highest they've been in 25 years;

* The average debt of the 800,000 Americans seeking the help of the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service is $20,000;

* The average income of same: $24,000

Despite these figures, the frenzy of Christmas shopping, engine of the retail trade, black hole of debt, came in 1996, as it does every year, with a vengeance. It's been said before, but it bears repeating: that this orgy of debt accumulation should take place on the supposed birthday of Christ is ironic to say the least. Remember, this is the Jewish teenager, born out of wedlock, who all but kicked the asses of the money-changers (read: credit card companies) in Jerusalem. Yet Americans, non-believers and believers alike, have perfected the observance of this man's birthday with excessive spending.

Make no mistake about it, today's credit card companies make Biblical Jerusalem's money lenders look like saints. They charge exorbitant interest rates--up to 25 cents on the dollar--and the minimize payments charging as little as 2 or 3 percent of the principal. "If you charge $1,000 at today's average interest rate," reports Money Magazine, "and then pay 2 percent of your balance off every month, after one year you would still owe $935--and it would take you more than 20 years to pay off the $1,000 entirely." Where's Jesus when you really need him?

In the holiday spirit, we decided to touch base with a few credit card companies and quote them the scriptures. We first phoned the First Financial Line, First Bank's credit processing center, where lines of credit range from 14 to 17 percent interest. We reminded a woman we'll call Sally of Matthew 21:12: "Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers."

"Is that something you ever think of," we asked, "given your line of work?"

Sally: Me? No. Not at all.

CP: So you don't think of that as something that's relevant to the credit industry these days.

Sally: Actually I really don't. That type of stuff--I don't really think about it.

CP: Are you a Christian?

Sally: Ah, yes, I am.

CP: Well maybe you should check that passage out. With the credit card companies charging such high interest, don't you think that's anti-Christian?

Sally: Actually, I really don't put two and two together like that. I don't know. Some people may think of it that way. It's just society, actually. It's just the way they have it.

Unenlightened, we turned to TCF, which referred us to MBNA America, the company that handles their accounts. MBNA seems to be the Publisher's Clearinghouse of credit cards; they process cards for more than 4,000 different entities.

"Do I ever think about what?" Sarah says.

CP: Well, the ramifications of the amount of interest you guys charge--or how Jesus might have viewed the credit card companies.

Sarah: To be honest with you, I have no control over how they set the interest rates. I have no idea how they do that. Maybe Jesus would have did things differently, but I don't know. I'm not in charge of that here.

CP: Do you ever feel a twinge of conscience about the people stuck with so much debt?

Sarah: I don't feel reason to. These people are well aware of what they're doing and what they're getting into, it's not that they're blinded by anything. They understand everything that they do.

There's truth in that, certainly. On the other hand, median income in America, according to the Census Bureau, peaks around $34,000. Earnings for the credit card companies are something else entirely: Visa USA, Inc. and MasterCard, Inc. are both privately held companies. One business directory estimates their operating revenues to be $230 million and $782 million respectively.

A very merry Christmas, indeed.

--Joseph Hart


Save those receipts--the World Against Toys Causing Harm, Inc. (a.k.a. WATCH--a Boston-based group that after numerous unanswered phone calls we've concluded is an empty room somewhere, although they've been WATCHing out for kids since 1965) has compiled a list of the MOST DANGEROUS TOYS on the market. So watch out for dangerous small parts, poke holes in any extra plastic bags, and remember--even a cardboard box can kill!

10) Disney's 101 Dalmatians Slippers; $7.99; Dalmatians "Hug Me" underwear and dog; $14.99. No age recommendation. "Potential for burns and choking injuries from these products."

9) Book and Pooh Charm. Christopher Robin Gives Pooh a Party published by Dutton Children's Books; $14.99. No age recommendation. "Potential for choking and strangulation from the pewter charm attached to the book."

8) Little Sleepy Eyes Soft Cuddly Toy; $14.99. Age recommendation: all ages. "Potential for choking."

7) Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame Quasimodo; $18.87. Age recommendation: 18 months and up. "Potential for ingestion or aspiration."

6) Sesame Street's Pull Back N' Go Jet Plane; $5.99. Age recommendation: 1 year and up. "Potential for serious eye injury and puncture wounds."

5) Nerf Chainblazer; $13.96; Perceptor Blaster; $17.99. Age recommendation: 6 years and up. "Potential for eye impact injury."

4) Digital Skip-It; $9.99; Electronic Sound Version Skip-It; $14.99. Age recommendation: 6 years and up. "Potential for severe bodily injury from weighted objects.

3) Sky Dancers; $9.99; Star Wonders; $5.99. Age recommendation: 5 years and up. "Potential for eye injury."

2) Star Wars Electronic Luke Skywalker Lightsaber; $24.99. Age recommendation: 4 years and up. "Hazard is potential for blunt injury."

1) Disney's Toy Story Slinky Dog Pull Toy; $12.99. Age recommendation: 18 months and up. "Potential for strangulation."

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