Archive for December 22nd, 2007

For me, sanity in December is defined as keeping out of the shopping malls. The hordes of increasingly desperate shoppers, all over-dressed for indoors and getting increasingly hot and frustrated is one of the worst ways I can imagine to suck all the joy out of whatever mid-Winter festival you happen to celebrate (For years, I’ve sent custom cards with every possible greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Io, Saturnalia!” crossed off one after another).

This attitude is hardly surprising. To start with, I’m not a recreational shopper. I can’t imagine having so little to do that I would wander around looking for something to buy. For me, shopping is generally a grim, serious business, comparable to a commando raid, in which getting in and out in the least time is the main objective – which is why I do the grocery shopping; I can be counted on not to overload the budget with impulse purchases. The two exceptions are books and music, and I don’t count them as consumer items, since I get the same pleasure out of a library or someone else’s music collection, and much of what I buy is not only hopelessly untrendy, but bought to keep.

Such shopping as I do tends to be in small street front stores. The store rents in malls are so high that interesting stores, or even stores that offer anything except the latest fashions were long ago banished elsewhere.

If you want a tailored shirt, fine Japanese porcelain, or weapons grade chocolate, you don’t go to a mall – you hunt down a small store front that is either rented by an ambitious immigrant or has been in the same family for three generations, and do your shopping there, socializing with the clerks and maybe sitting down with a cup of herbal tea before you pay for your purchases. That’s shopping as it was meant to be, and mall stores simply can’t offer it.

Besides, between degrees, I worked in a mall book store for several years, and the experience left me with a disinclination to linger in malls at any time of year. The way that buildings are used for extended periods leaves a patina of emotion over them, and, although malls fall short of the oppressiveness of a prison, they are still far from being intimate or comforting places to linger.

Add this general nature of malls to the fact that I spent two Christmases having nightmares about endless lines of customers by night and being tormented by day by repetitions of the Smurf’s Christmas album every forty-five minutes (the mall only had two seasonal albums), and the wonder is that I don’t flee screaming from mall entrances like some hapless South Pacific explorer who’s just raised Cthulhu from R’lyeh.

Still, even without these preferences and previous experiences, I would find malls in December an unpleasant experience. For one thing, the seasonal decorations feel like they are trying to jolly you into a good mood, and that always brings out the worst in me – I’m generally an easygoing person, but I clench my jaw any hint that someone is trying to manipulate me.

For another thing, the sheer number of people who descend on the malls in December is overwhelming. I’m not thinking physically so much, although recreational shoppers can be frustrating for those of us who treat shopping like a bombing mission. While you want to walk briskly, they stroll slowly, making abrupt stops and darting out suddenly in front of you and generally getting in your way.

Instead, I’m thinking of the sheer number of purposes all boxed in together and conflicting. Emotionally, it’s as though everyone is smoking highly individualized cigars in a confined space – the effect quickly drains you.

You don’t get this same effect on public transit or at a concert. In these places, most people have much the same purpose, such as waiting out the ride or listening to the music. But a crowd of Christmas shoppers is not a group. It’s a mass of individuals, each filled with their own purposes.

Then, just to make matters worse, the longer shoppers have to search or wait in line, the intenser their emotions become. And, many of these emotions, of course, tend to be negative ones; you almost never seen holiday shoppers looking pleased or excited, or expressing how pleased the person they are buying for is going to be with a purchase. Instead, the concern is whether an item is in stock or can be ordered in time, or whether they can find a place to sit and eat or why the mall overheats everything and whether that person over there is going to cut into the cashier line. Such emotions and concerns become increasingly heightened as the month of December continues, culminating on the last shopping day before Christmas, then bursting out in one last ugly outbreak during the post-Christmas sales.

If you’re at all sensitive to the mood of crowds – if you can sense how a band has left everyone mellow of full of social purpose, or whether a protest march is about to turn ugly – then about fifteen minutes of this stew of concentrated negative emotions is all you take. Then, like me, you either have to flee or find a quiet corner where you assume the fetal position without being noticed.
Rather than face this disquieting experience, I find it easier just to avoid malls in December. If I miss a few bargains, so what? They were likely on items I’d never purchase anyway. And the main advantage of this avoidance is not just that I find buying presents less stressful, but I arrive at the holiday feeling less exhausted.

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