It's the traditional Christmas shopping season in America, but as a psychologist and lawyer, one who studies people's motivations for doing things (bad things mostly, but not always), I have to wonder: Is it really "Christmas" shopping, or has it become just "Christmastime" shopping for many Americans? Are people really out shopping with commemorating and celebrating the birth of Jesus in mind, or has the holiday become little more than an excuse for many people to indulge their materialism? I know, lamenting the over-commercialization of Christmas is a familiar chord played every December by ministers, grandparents, even Charlie Brown, but I think what I'm wondering goes beyond that.
On the morning after Thanksgiving, roughly 2,000 shoppers lined up outside a New York Wal-Mart, many of them there to get plasma televisions, among other items, at bargain prices. If you had polled those people, demographic statistics and common sense suggest that many of them would've said they were there to buy "Christmas" presents. My friends in the news media covered similar assemblies of shoppers across the country, emphasizing a collective excitement and anticipation akin to what we see on the sports networks as anxious fans wait to enter a World Series game or the Super Bowl. So excited was this crowd that, like a herd of stampeding cattle, it eventually forced the store's doors open, trampling 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour to death. Was it that crowd members had no choice but to move forward, propelled uncontrollably by the throng of "Christmas" shoppers at their backs? Sadly, no. Many coldly, callously, literally ran roughshod over Damour and several other people on their way to their "Christmas" presents, even shoving and shouting at Damour's co-workers who attempted to pull him and others to safety.
The psychology of crowd behavior provides only a partial explanation for what happened at that New York Wal-Mart on "Black Friday." As individuals meld into emotionally charged crowds, feelings of "deindividuation" and anonymity come over them, essentially their perceptions of personal responsibility and accountability diminish, and they'll often take part in acts that they'd never commit alone. We've seen this phenomenon historically in the lynch mobs of old and in tramplings and crushings that have occurred at sporting events, most notably soccer matches in countries where that sport is followed with quasi-religious fervor. While veteran "Black Friday" shoppers seem to approach their shopping as if it were a sport, often behaving like fanatics in the stands or, as they did on this "Black Friday," like actual players on a professional soccer or football field, most of their fervor, as I see it, isn't even quasi-religious. If you watch the video of the stampeding shoppers at that New York Wal-Mart, you'll see precious few, if any, indications that anyone in the crowd was there for any purpose that had anything to do with religion or reverence, for Jesus, or Christmas, or anything but golden and plastic and plasma-filled idols.
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Even if they were overcome with anticipation and excitement, spurred on by one another and by media hype, one would hope that shoppers who were shopping with thoughts of Jesus' birthday somewhere in their brains would've been jolted out of their herd mentality by the image of a human being literally dying at their feet, but no, sadly, many weren't. Why not? I think it's a reflection of a cold, callous self-focus bordering on self-worship that's pervading our culture in many ways, and the fact that it's apparently pervaded even supposed "Christmas" shoppers merely illustrates just how pervasive it's become.
Recall the elderly pedestrian who was struck by a car in Connecticut last summer and lay helpless in the street as car after car drove around him but didn't stop. Then just days ago, a young man committed suicide, live on the Internet in front of thousands of onlookers, just a few of whom bothered to alert authorities. Americans seem to be so wrapped up in themselves and in their own lives – and especially in their material desires – these days that empathy for one another seems to be in short supply, even at Christmastime, when there's traditionally been an uptick in empathy, charity and civility. When you're out among "Christmas" shoppers at your local mall or Wal-Mart, you don't have to witness a deadly stampede to see what I'm seeing. You can see it in the parking lot when "Christmas" shoppers almost flatten other "Christmas" shoppers to claim empty parking spaces. You can see it when "Christmas" shoppers cut in front of other "Christmas" shoppers in line or yell at beleaguered employees who aren't locating the perfect "Christmas" presents fast enough.
Particularly in these tough economic times, it seems to me that many "Christmas" shoppers could benefit from a little less time in the mall, a little less time in Wal-Mart and a little more time at church, or just at home, reflecting on why it is that we celebrate this Christmas holiday in the first place. Then, when they venture back out to get gifts to celebrate and commemorate the birth of Jesus, more of them might be true Christmas shoppers, and their gifts true Christmas gifts, gotten and given in the true spirit of Christmas.
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If you've read this far thinking, "Gee, I'm always polite and civil and courteous, and I always have the true meaning of Christmas in mind when I'm out shopping for my gifts," great. Then join with me in calling on every "Christmas" shopper to do the same, so that our collective shopping behavior better reflects our appreciation of the reason for this holiday (and shopping) season, not just between now and Christmas, but throughout the coming year.