Shopping for Christmas

`TWAS 25 nights (more or less) before Christmas, and all through the house the economists were stirring - busily forecasting the retail gross.

How long has it been since Thanksgiving became known as the day before the biggest shopping day of the year? And when did the straight and narrow path to Bethlehem get bypassed in favor of the four-lane highway to the shopping mall?

The chorus of protest against the commercialization of Christmas has been heard for so many years that it can sound as canned as a Muzak carol. Yet the situation only seems to get worse.

For those who choose to shop far from the madding crowd - by mail rather than by mall - the catalogs fill the mailbox till there's room for nothing else, except of course the credit card bills that follow.

For the electronic window-shopper of the future, turning gift-buying into a video game, TV shopping channels are scarcely less frenzied - making spending money positively interactive. Surrounded by those annual tip sheets, the ``best buy'' lists, shoppers trying to decide what to give to whom play out Christmas like a multiple-choice test.

For the very rich and the very bewildered, shopping services with names like The Professional Shopper and The Gifted Buyer will do the job for you. Merry proxy Christmas!

What does it say that Christmas too often has been reduced to a bottom line, the sum of the gifts under the tree? Indeed, one owes heavy purchasing not only to one's loved ones - forget the old saying, ``It's the thought that counts'' - but to the country itself. As a kind of patriotic obligation, Christmas shoppers are pressured to empty their pockets into the retailers' coffers so that all those economists can pronounce the economy healthy the day after Christmas. Already the first encouraging statistics are in, showing retail sales up 5.7 percent.

How to reclaim a season in danger of losing its power to be either merry or holy? The first step is to recognize that this artificially stimulated Christmas spending may be no truer an index of the economy than the length of women's skirts.

It's certainly no true measure of the original spirit of Christmas, when single offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh served to celebrate the wonder that had come to the world. This is the real point - so obvious and so easily forgotten.

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