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Christmas Shopping Blues

[Religion News Service, November 28, 1995] 

Is everybody happy? I’m not sure. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Christiana Mall in Christiana, Delaware was crowded and bristling with festive decor, but the people waiting around the base of the fountain looked dazed and glum. The fountain was dry, so its circular field of brownish rocks sat idle, looking like a section of Sinai desert dropped from the sky. Pilgrims lined the perimeter of the inscrutable rocks with their bulky shopping bags at their feet. They gazed off distracted, jetsam in a sea of material bliss.

The days around Thanksgiving start off the Christmas season with a bang, and Friday after the holiday is the heaviest shopping day of the year. According to Virginia Pancoe, director of marketing at Potomac Mills in Woodbridge, Virginia, up to 125,000 shoppers were expected to visit the mile-long, 225-store institution on that day alone.

She looked pretty happy about it. My teenage daughter and I navigated the length of the jammed hallway, trying to gauge what shoppers thought. Recreational shopping is a favored American hobby, and Christmas shopping should be the giddiest time of the year. But here, as at Christiana Mall, people looked lost, overwhelmed, and drifting.

The mall has replaced the various geographical centers of previous generations: market, church, post office, park. This is now our public space, where we go to do business and be seen. But it is actually private space, with everything is arranged for selling. No clocks in evidence at the mall. The doors on the outside are large and obvious, to gobble you up; once you’re in they’re hidden away. What the mall offers is subtly different from what was in the town square: entertainment, stupefying abundance, visual noise, an encapsulated wonderland where you can linger beyond time.

What’s puzzling is why, with all these goodies, shoppers don’t seem to be having fun. Especially in this jolly season of glut.

Forty years ago Vance Packard wrote in The Hidden Persuaders that consumer researchers, trying to harness the psyche of the impulse buyer, had made an interesting discovery. The average person blinks his eyes about 32 times a minute; under extreme stress he’ll speed up to fifty or sixty, and when particularly relaxed slow to twenty or less. Motivational analyst James Vicary set up hidden cameras in supermarkets, hoping to fathom shoppers’ inner state. He expected to find some heightened level of tension or excitement, as they pushed carts through the blare of visual demands.

But to Vicary’s surprise, the eyeblink rate went down, to the very subnormal rate of fourteen blinks per minute. Shoppers fell into a "hypnoidal trance…the first stage of hypnosis." In this state they bumped into boxes, failed to recognize neighbors, and some evidenced "a glassy stare." Only the ring of the cash register awakened them, sending the eyeblink rate shooting back up over normal.

I see these dazed people at the mall, supposedly having fun. On a bench sits two women, leaning away from each other as strangers do. One is whitehaired and birdlike in a raspberry raincoat; her eyes are are fixed intently on the distance. The middle-aged black woman near her sags a chin into her palm and stares at the floor. Bags litter the ground.

Moving into the flow of foot traffic is like stepping into a fast-flowing river; the overwhelming noise and numbers make you feel, my daughter says, like you do when you have a headcold—everything so numb and far away. As we descend toward the food court we enter a maelstrom of surging bodies. It is like a sudden thunderstorm, and we surface on the other side feeling pelted, relieved to return to the steady downpour of shoppers.

In a window are ivory mannequins in party dresses and Madame DuBarry wigs. These wear expressions like the stunned shoppers, but more disdainful. A dad striding by suddenly stops, and looks around; "We lost ‘em again!" he exclaims to his son.

Santa’s face is engulfed in white beard, which probably conceals an annoyed expression—his foot is rapidly tapping with impatience. A burly blond dad waits in line, patpatpatting his infant son too fast. He says to his very pretty little daughter, "I wish Mommy would come. I wish she were here. I have no money now." A fashionable mommy with hair like Edward Scissorhands walks by quickly, telling her daughter, "You saw the real Santa yesterday. This must be one of his helpers." In the window of a pet store lies an exhausted Rottweiler puppy with a green ribbon around his neck.

A thin, nervous woman races past us with a hank of her brown hair roped through her mouth. On the overhead monitor, Johnny Mathis is dreaming of a White Christmas, while large plastic flakes swirl down around his shoulders. A large woman with lank hair and a gray-blue flannel shirt is telling her friend, "That black couple was telling me how at the food court they was waiting on a table, and they finey got one, and these guys at the end of the table started fighting, and the wife got scared, and they left. "

Kiosks stand like tugboats bucking the tide. They are amazingly specific: only bears, only caps, only shoelaces, only purple stuff (a beret that reads, in gold, "Jesus Lives." ) "They have like twelve bear stores in this mall," a woman tells her friend. Waffle-sole boots track through cola and ice spilled on the floor.

The mall at Christmas is battering, numbing, and not necessarily fun. What’s it all about? There are two available theories. One is shown on six simultaneous screens at the video store: a bulked-up superhero Joseph, and a Mary with a shape like the one I didn’t have minutes after childbirth, are kneeling next to a manger. The three madcap critters from the "Animaniacs" cartoon show are looking on, admiring the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. The video is titled "Helloooo Holidays!"

Or, as Virginia Pancoe says, "It’s the holidays. It’s the thing you do. You shop."

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