The America Series

They hang by the thousands in the vast
upper reaches of Woodland mall, which, on this day after Thanksgiving, can only be considered the center of the universe.  Lights. Strings of them. Blankets of them. Blinkling, twinkling, and dazzling as though to provide celestial approval for the money-driven mayhem below.

A recent Gallup poll found that only 5% of Americans planned to do most of their Christmas shopping today, (while 7% chose the day before Christmas and 35% the first two weeks of December). Procrastination makes it happen, I guess.

Nonetheless, by now the day after Thanksgiving has almost as much tradition as its predecessor. Millions have just spent a holiday counting their blessings and relishing their relatives. Now it's time to hit the malls and shell out the dough. Today as I wander around Woodland I am curious to see just how thoughts so quickly turn from giving thanks for food and family to giving chase for car parts and CD's, as gratitude melts to self-gratification. 

King of Kings?

Beneath the bundles of blinking lights, wearily peering out from his fortress of Christmas trees, presents and poinsettias at the center of the mall, awaiting besiegement by memory-seeking mothers, is Santa Claus. Well, a smooth-skinned, fake-bearded facimile, anyway. Why anyone would give up the relative comforts of the North Pole to subject his supposedly centuries-old knee to the behinds of innumerable toddlers remains uncertain. 

His plush red chair perches in front of a towering camera which periodically erupts to capture the tremulous toddler and the one of follicle fallacy. Should the child fail to grin broadly, Santa's faithful helper will produce The Squeaky Toy in an attempt to make junior appear as thought he is actually enjoying sitting on the lap of a stranger with a glossy fake beard, surrounded by squeaks and smiles.

The artificial ambience is complete. The fireplace is oh-so nineties - a digital flame flickering on a big screen TV.  The blinking arrow on the screen gives it away. Santa, we assume, didn't program the VCR.  He can only hope the on-screen command doesn't interrupt the pricelessness of the moment.

Well, okay, not priceless.  One 5 by 7 will cost you $8.99.  Nine wallets fetch $14.99.  A combination package goes for just $24.99.  Lest customers forget, the labyrinthine poinsettia path conveniently weaves past Santa's roost right up to the cashier, where the financial transactions are hashed out.  Used to be seeing Santa meant hauling out a wish list.  Now it means hauling out a credit card.

Welcome to Mecca

Unlike the Santa center, KayBee Toys is not at the center of Woodland Mall - it's tucked off the Sears wing - but it might as well be.  As I stand at its gaping mouth, preparing to be swallowed whole, I am in awe of the skyscraping mountains of Mattel marvels before me.  The North Pole itself must not harbor this many toys.  This is the apex of America, the cusp of Christmas.  This is where children's dreams and parents' nightmares will become reality this holiday season.  This is where Venom's Water Vipers and Magic Stroller Baby can dwell together in harmony as sweet as the ever-ringing cash register. 

My goodness, there are a lot of toys in here.  They have managed to pile everything imaginable into this sanctuary of  self-indulgence, from Barbie to Batman, Cabbage Patch to Captain America, with parcels stacked to the heavens.  A Mars Attacks Martian Flying Saucer's exposed button beckons to "Try Me."  I am no elf, but I cannot reach it; it is stocked far above World Wrestling Federation Powerhouse 7-piece set and DragonFlyz Riptor dragon launcher, as well as the Flash Gordon Rebel Air Bike. 

In the history of human ingenuity, there is Edison and the light bulb, the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, and then, in the next aisle, right next to Pretty Pretty Princess, is Baby Did It, which when fed, well, does it, and promises "no diaper mess."  Thanks, but I'd rather take my chances with Mantis Alien "with bone crushing action." 

Then there is The Line, whose length requires titular capitalization.  The front of The Line, of course, culminates at the cash register, where frenzied workers pound at cash registers and bark into phones.  From there The Line forms a "J" (as in "Jasmine," the Aladdin character available here in about a hundred different capacities), stretching past Magic Flower Maker, Monster Mash, and Zog Logs before continuing all the way past the Pocohantas electronic board game and Hunchback of Notre Dame electronic board game, down to the Fisher Price wall which serves as the back of the store, housing everything from Pop-Up-Puppy to Wobbly Fun Ball, before wrapping around to the Sesame Street section.

By a store worker's estimation The Line is a 30 minute wait.  Rumor swirls that the line at Toys 'R Us was an hour, and that was seven thirty this morning.  While you wait here, meanwhile, you can glance at The Lost World Extra Large 3-D Game Board, whose cardboard questions, "Will You Survive?"  Most of the patient parents, bearing boxes of Barbies and barbaric boa constrictors, seem determined.

Mail at the Mall

I somehow emerge from the mecca of merchandise again, finding the rest of the packed mall spacious by comparison.  (Try to find a place to sit and write, however, and you are quickly doomed.)  I make my way back toward the unmistakable Santa centerpiece (speaking of Mecca) and stumble upon a couple of small tables surrounding what looks like a red and green pot-bellied stove.  One of Santa's helpers stands sentry beside it, receiving pieces of paper from children at the tables and feeding it to the stove, which responds with a whirring sound.  A sign calls this the North Polestal Station, and the giant mailbox and its whirring are supposedly sending heartfelt written requests north. 

I am old enough (I just don't show it) to know those notes aren't actually going to 90 degrees latitude, so I motion to the attendant and inquire about their destination.  "Santa answers them," she assures me, and shows me the place on the letter where children are to write their addresses.  And somebody responds?  "We have an individual who does that," the helper reveals, out of earshot of the scribbling little kids.  The station is not a hundred feet from Santa supposedly himself, camped out in front of that camera.  But this is a communications age.  Be surprised they're not weaning the kids on e-mail.

The Last Word

About two thousand years ago, before even the erection of Woodland Mall, back when 
commercialization meant obtaining a few more camels and bringing gifts meant gold, frankincense and myrrh rather than Primal Rage Talon and Beanie Babies, the teenage bride of a carpenter put her baby 
in a feeding trough, unable to believe that God had stuffed himself into a bloody, bawling bundle of flesh. 

On this day after Thanksgiving I don't bother to wonder how we got from there to here, from manger to mecca, from Prince of Peace to Pretty Pretty Princess, or even how yesterday's spirit of count-your-blessings turned overnight to count-your-Christmas-wishes. 

After wandering around Woodland Mall the day after Thanksgiving, I am encouraged by little more than the words of one man I overheard back in KayBee Toys, words I want blast over the mall's sound system (in place of the chipper "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year") and frame in neon lights above Santa and his big screen TV fireplace.  As naked greed goes unchecked around me and Christmas cheer seems to mean little more than refraining from screaming at the guy who just cut in front of you in the Santa line, I remember that man who turned around and left KayBee after being told The Line was now 40 minutes long. 

"Never mind," he said.  "I don't need anything that bad."


Copyright 1997 Nathan Bierma

© 2001