Les Fleurs du Mall

For a long time I shunned the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year. I had my reasons, which now seem Grinchlike. There was disdain, more or less hypocritical, for crass consumerism; contempt, more or less authentic, for people who practice it; and impatience, possibly premature, for crowded places in general. Let other people fight to the death over some cheap plastic piece of crap, was my attitude toward the day after Thanksgiving. I'm going for a hike.

This year was different. My boyfriend and I took a look at the attractive, contented shoppers streaming through San Francisco's Union Square, looked at each other, and dove in. Surrender was effortless. We joined the crowd hovering around the famous Macy's store windows, where kittens and puppies gazed back from their perches on doll furniture. We rode the escalators at Saks and sat on every sofabed in Crate & Barrel. We beamed at each other. We beamed at strangers. We bought stemware.

There's a simple explanation for this turnaround: we gave over to the pre-rational phenomenon known as the orgiastic ritual.

To paraphrase the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, the orgiastic ritual is an activity cooked up by the group to scare away the very bad scariness of existential isolation. It's usually something a little racier than holiday shopping, but in this culture holiday shopping is frenzied and ritualistic enough to count. We meet in the marketplace, we all go a little crazy together, we have some fun, we make some mistakes. And in the end we're worn out and full of that good feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

The problem for anyone trying to remain sane and responsible during the holidays lies in what the "something larger" is.

Maybe it's nothing more than a consumer-driven economy that requires a massive end-of-year cash infusion just to keep the wheels from coming off. Indeed, the retail sector has come to rely on the holiday season. Analysts predict that one quarter of this year's retail spending, or $220 billion worth, will take place during the 29 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The day that starts it all off is known in the biz as Black Friday for its legendary power to push retailers safely into the profit column for the year. From that point on the experts, like priests reading the entrails of slaughtered beasts, anxiously watch for signs of how big the holiday shopping season – and therefore the year – will be.

The pressure is on to make it very big. Thus, this year's must-have gifts – the digital cameras, flat-screen TVs and iPods. What is absolutely necessary to the smooth running of the machinery is that spending in a given year exceed spending in the previous year. The analysts have predicted that we consumers will do our part and spend 5 to 6 percent more this year than last. The spending orgy will take place as scheduled.

Like all orgies, this one involves lapses in judgment. This year the average American is planning to spend $716 on holiday purchases, according to Myvesta, a Rockville, Md.-based consumer education organization. And that's planned spending. U.S. consumers typically blow their holiday gift-buying budgets by 15 to 30 percent.

So credit card use is up. On Black Friday it was 10 percent higher than last year. An estimated $87 billion of the season's $220 billion in sales will be on major credit cards. It's no secret that debt rises during the holidays. That's good. For somebody.

So is that it? We're here to stoke the engine of the economy and enrich someone else? Is there anything the non-believer can find that's good about Christmas? Any reason at all to feel okay about shrugging off caution and leaping into the shopping, overspending, debt-incurring orgy?

Yes. It's fun to give stuff to people we like. Just as the holidays are perfectly timed to banish winter doldrums – the days get shorter and the nights get longer, so we hang up twinkling lights and start bingeing – so are they perfectly timed to make the exchange of gifts the most meaningful. The world outside is withering, closing, darkening, but we are giving things away, spreading around joy and abundance and positively lighting up with consumer confidence.

In order to give stuff away, we have to go shopping. And as everyone who has ever been on a quest for the perfect gift well knows, this can be a fevered experience in which reason falls by the wayside, bent and trampled. This madness can infect the most well-meaning, progressive sort of person, even one making a conscious effort to eschew the materialism of the season. I know this firsthand. One year, determined to make my own Christmas presents and save a little money while I was at it, I managed to spend $200 on bath salt supplies, because nothing but the finest essential oils of neroli and rose and the best Breton salts and the loveliest-shaped bottles and the most fetching little ribbons would do for my dear friends.

Anyone can get drawn into the orgy of holiday shopping. It's part of the greater feast, a modern ritual within an ancient tradition. The pagans had Yule, the Romans had the Saturnalia, we have Christmas. And with it, extended mall hours and an excuse to go nuts.

In the end, the season is about sharing with family and friends. In the meantime, it's about jumping into the fray, credit cards held aloft, and declaring that no parking lot is too full, no store too crowded, no widget too costly, no credit limit too inflexible to defeat our noble purpose.

So the bill comes in January and we hang our heads. So what? It wouldn't be an an orgy if we didn't do things we later regretted. Otherwise it would just be a party. And we can go to those anytime.


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