Not once did I think about going to the mall at midnight on Thanksgiving Day—but there were many, many who did. And they didn’t just go and leisurely shop. No, these were more like shopping storm troopers battering down the doors of their favorite stores.
Why? Did they mistake the first shopping day of the Christmas season for the last shopping day ever? How is it possible to whip a crowd into such a buying frenzy? And is there anything in the story of Jesus’ birth that would account for this mall madness?
I believe it has to do with seasonal mood swings. These mood swings are temporary emotional states brought on by holiday stimuli. When they appear they trigger certain behaviors, like shopping for example. But they trigger other things as well.
For instance during the brief period between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, people are suddenly able to see the less fortunate in our midst. They carry blankets to the homeless or serve food in a soup kitchen for a day. They gather canned goods for the hungry and buy toys for needy children.
And all of this is great. Local charities and helping agencies depend heavily on these seasonal bouts of good will. Just as retailers count on Christmas shopping to flesh out their profits for the year, so do charities rely on this annual outbreak of kindness to round out their struggling budgets.
And of course the poor and the homeless appreciate it. It’s the one time in the year when they have reason to believe that someone cares. Unfortunately, once the season is over, the poor and the homeless tend to revert back to their previous state of invisibility.
Seasonal depression is also likely a result of these annual mood swings. Christmas is supposed to be a magic time. It’s all about family and joy—at least that’s what the commercials say. But reality does not always match the hype.
Unresolved personal issues, marital or financial problems, chronic illnesses do not suddenly get better simply because Christmas rolls around. In fact, sometimes they get worse. The financial pressures and burdens on families may actually increase during the season. Seasonal depression is the disappointment that comes when the magic does not work.
There may be something we can learn from these holiday ups and downs. For instance, in spite of the fact that we already have more junk than we can use, we frantically shop at Christmas time to buy and have even more stuff. Is there an emptiness in our lives we are trying to fill?
And the poor are always with us, as Jesus reminded us, and we can help them anytime we choose. Why only at the apex of our material pursuits do we suddenly notice our struggling neighbors? Could it be that our temporary bouts of charity are really efforts to atone for a life style of meaningless consumption?
And I ask again, is there anything in the story of Jesus’ birth to account for all this?
Christians believe that Jesus’ birth marks the beginning of a new day for the whole world. What if, in an effort to celebrate that birth, we reversed the order of our values? Instead of shopping ’til we drop, why not share our wealth with the needy–and not just once a year, but as a daily discipline.
It might be just the cure for our Christmas blues, but even if it’s not, it will at least keep us from being trampled at the mall.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.