Cool temperatures and fiery-colored leaves; carved pumpkins and trussed-up turkeys; harried gift shopping and hurried cross-country trips; mounds of food and stacks of gaily-wrapped presents—that’s what the end-of-year holiday season in the United States is usually made of. But not so much this year, many across the Baltimore-Washington metro area and beyond are reporting. With families still ailing or recovering from the ravages of the two-year recession, holiday celebrations will be mere shadows of what they used to be.

For Wanda Taylor, 56, of Washington, D.C., the holidays were usually a much-anticipated time when she’d put her best cooking skills to work, preparing a lavish feast for family and friends. This year, however, Thanksgiving will comprise of much smaller fare of “maybe chicken” for her and her husband, Demetrius. Wanda’s 89-year-old mother might join them.

“But I think that’s all it’s going to be,” Wanda said. “I can’t have a lot of company and it sort of messes with me because I love to cook.”

Married 13 years, Wanda said the couple is struggling to make ends meet after Demetrius, 56, recently lost his job at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Since then, he’s collected unemployment benefits while steadily looking for a job and Wanda has been trying to help by babysitting neighborhood children a few hours each day.

Elaine King, a fiery 63-year-old from Dundalk, Md., who is raising her 7-year-old grandson Joseph, said things were so bad for her tight-knit family that she was unable to pay her gas and electric bill this month. To ease her grandson’s fear of the dark, she has stashed large high beam flashlights in as many corners of their house as she could and blasts battery powered radios.

Many of her neighbors are in similarly dire straits, she said, which has dampened their jovial holiday spirits. “It’s not there anymore… the joy of family and the joy of big meals and so forth,” she said. “People are so stressed out about where the next meal is going to come from. You have to toss a coin to say ‘pay the rent or pay the light bill.’”

To make things easier, King is having a “joint” Thanksgiving with her next-door neighbor this year. King and the neighbor, a mother of four, will split cooking duties and spend the day watching movies and playing games.

Single mother Toya Carmichael, a recent graduate of Georgetown Law, is also facing a difficult holiday season as she continues working temporary and part-time jobs to provide for her 7-year-old son, Isaiah Devers. In a normal economy, she said she would’ve had a job lined up before graduation. In her case, the market was so bad that her class of graduates was wait-listed for legal jobs for a year. A position has yet to materialize for Carmichael and it’s forced her to make hard decisions this holiday season.

“It’s getting more difficult the closer that we get to the holidays,” she said. “You start having anxieties about Christmas and getting winter clothes for your kid about meeting needs.”

Though she can’t return to her home in California, she’s sacrificed to ensure that her son can visit his father who lives there. “The ticket prices are so high that he’s actually going to fly back by himself for the first time. I’m a little nervous about that…,” she said.

Jamaica-born Dennis Campbell won’t be seeing his family, either. The Bowie, Md. resident left his full-time job in November 2008 to start his own janitorial business. But a tightened economy has prevented Campbell from really cashing in on his entrepreneurship. The newly married man said he would love to take his wife to his Caribbean hometown, but those plans have been put on hold. Still, Campbell said, he’s not complaining. “Nobody has any money – it’s not just me – so I can’t sit and complain about it,” he said. “I have health, an occupation I control and a beautiful wife, life is great.”

Like Campbell, other area residents are saying that though holiday festivities have been curtailed, they are still thankful for small blessings.

“If you appreciate the small blessings, when the big blessings come, you will appreciate them more,” said Sharron Mayers, a single mother of three children. The Baltimore resident said her restricted income has caused her family to re-evaluate the meaning of the holidays.

“I don’t put a price tag on any of my holidays anymore,” Mayers told the AFRO. “…We get together as a family and we talk about what we’re thankful for. I bring out the photo album and talk about their grandparents and their history and we also talk about what goals we want to accomplish in the future.”

Taylor, the Northwest Washington resident, said she and her husband, Demetrius are thankful to be alive and in good health. “We’re also thankful to have a roof over our heads,” she added. “Last year at this time, Demetrius was staying in a shelter and I was living with my daughter. So, I’m just so happy to at least have a key to turn in my own door.”

King, the Dundalk grandmother, said as bad as things are, she knows there are many more people who are doing worse. So, in spite of her personal financial woes, King’s home is packed with winter clothes she is collecting for the homeless.

“If you have 75 percent more than someone, then you should go to your neighbor and say, ‘How can I help?’” King said. “I’m poor, but I hurt for some people because I have a roof over my head, Joseph can get cookies, and he has toys.”

Reminded of those small blessings, King said she is praying for a happy holiday.

“God will find a way,” she said. “Just like he always does.”