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Les Fleurs Du Mall

How to stop worrying and love big spending

By Traci Hukill

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 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. 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. Analysts predict that a quarter of this year's retail spending, or $220 billion worth, will take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like all orgies, this one involves lapses in judgment. U.S. consumers typically blow their holiday gift-buying budgets by 15 to 30 percent.

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

Yes. Just as the holidays are perfectly timed to banish winter doldrums, so are they perfectly timed to make the exchange of gifts the most meaningful. The world outside is withering, closing, but we are giving things away, spreading around joy and abundance. In order to give stuff away, we have to go shopping.

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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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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