A Seasonal Dilemma: The Mall vs. the Magi

ANY day now, possibly even before Thanksgiving dinner has been served, the official Christmas countdown will begin. Stores will display calendars in their ads, blocking out each shopping day as it passes. And local newspapers will feature Page 1 boxes in which elfin creatures warn: "Only 23 (or 15 or 10 or 2) Days 'Til Christmas." The message is unmistakable: Get moving - and spending - or you'll end up with nothing to put under the tree on Christmas morning.

Unofficially, of course, the holiday season began months ago. In July - or was it June? - catalogs began arriving in the mail featuring holiday items such as ornaments and cards. By mid-October, some department stores were decked out in full holiday splendor, producing a seasonal mismatch of colors that pitted Christmas red against Halloween orange.

Like Pavlov's dog salivating at the ring of a bell, Americans are expected to open their wallets - wide - at the first sight of an artificial wreath in a mall or the first sound of a tinny carol in an elevator. Talk about conditioned response!

At this rate of creeping Christmas commercialism, stores everywhere may soon resemble the windows of a vacant store in our town square. There, for the past year, snowy holiday scenes painted on the glass have defied the calendar. Other seasons and celebrations have come and gone - Valentine's Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween - but the winter wonderland remains frozen in place, seemingly forever. Even midsummer letters of complaint to our suburban newspaper failed to persuade the landlord to remove his holiday tableau, which is now almost in sync with the season again. Is this a portent of things to come, as merchants across the country play an ever-earlier game of Deck the Malls?

No one can escape. Since October, callers to Northwest Airlines have found themselves listening to a recorded message urging, "Do all your holiday shopping at the Mall of America, the largest enclosed retail-entertainment facility in the United States!" Tour packages, the disembodied voice explains, make it easy to visit the 78-acre mall and its 400-plus stores. But wait - 78 acres? More than 400 stores? Quick - pass the mail-order catalogs and a telephone.

Already retail analysts are crunching numbers and placing imaginary crystal balls next to cash registers to predict holiday sales, which can account for an astonishing 40 percent of a store's annual profits. To merchants' dismay, one survey finds that nearly half of women and one-third of men plan to spend less this year. It is as though a red-white-and-blue recruiting poster hangs in every store window, bearing a patriotic command: "Uncle Sam wants you, the Christmas shopper, to be the salvation of the American economy."

Yet while merchandisers and economists are exhorting Americans to "Buy, buy, buy" to restore national prosperity, other financial experts are cautioning them to "Save, save, save" to reduce consumer debt. What a strange comedy of mixed signals!

If "What to spend?" is a holiday shopper's first dilemma, a second question looms almost as large: "What to buy?" Despite the proliferation of catalogs, the profusion of glittering displays in stores, even the stacks of instant, pre-wrapped gifts balanced precariously on tables in the middle of aisles, has it ever been harder to find the right gift? These days, "making a list and checking it twice" can mean staring at a blank paper, wondering what to buy for just about everyone.

No wonder some idea-short gift givers simply decide to write checks or tuck newly minted money into envelopes. And no wonder others gladly pay $89 to send two lobsters and trimmings to friends on their list, or $55.95 to mail-order a chocolate mousse torte. At least they can rest assured that recipients won't need to join the crowds returning gifts on Dec. 26.

It's an old story to carp about the commercialization of Christmas. But the invention of a term like "Christmas blues" indicates what a disrupting experience it can be to retain a habit when it has been emptied of meaning. How long will it take before we get it? There can be little "peace and goodwill" for the agitated celebrants of Christmas until the journey of the Magi takes slightly more priority over those journeys to the mall.

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