by Kevin S. Baldwin
Shopping in general and shopping at malls in particular, especially during the holidays is one of my least favorite activities. Despite this predilection, a few a years ago, I found myself at the Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis on the Winter Solstice.
The mall's name is descriptive. At its center there is a circular atrium that is several stories high. As I surveyed the structure from the top level, I could see it was crowded and loud, with thousands of people moving about on the various levels. There was not a smile to be seen anywhere. So much for the joy of the season (and one of the reasons I tend to avoid malls between Halloween and New Year's). My Christian friends are quick to remind me that I would be more likely to experience joy in other places (like their congregation). I don't doubt them, but when I look at the time and energy devoted to shopping during the holiday season and the accompanying misery at the individual and planetary levels, I can't help but think we as a culture need to rethink our priorities.
The space got a little busier and noisier. Several school buses full of what looked like junior high and high school students had disgorged themselves into the mall. A church youth group, judging by the number of Christian-themed T-shirts. “Lord's Gym: Bench Press This!”, “this” being the sins of the world in the form of a cross, with Jesus struggling to lift it, was especially popular. Wrong holiday, I thought: Easter isn't for a few months yet (technically, I suppose the shirts actually represented Good Friday). Another popular one showed a bloody hand nailed to a cross emblazoned with “His pain, your gain.” Why the obsession with how Jesus died rather than how he lived and taught us to live? Again, priorities,…
Suddenly, this scene seemed oddly familiar: Throngs of unhappy people milling about in concentric multi-tiered circles. I had unwittingly stumbled into the 21st century version of Dante's Inferno! I began imagining who was on what level and what stores would be where in this mall. Should “Victoria's Secret” be on the upper or lower level? Should food courts that supersize meals be near the bottom? What did you have to do to move between levels, and so on. You get the idea.
Situations like this play out every year and I struggle to keep my inner Grinch at bay especially when I'm out with my kids. For me the holidays are about being at home with good food, family, friends and despite my atheism, good holiday music. The chorale at my college recently rendered an astonishingly transcendent “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Who cannot be moved by Handel's “Messiah?” My latest discovery/ear-worm is Haydn's “The Creation,” another fabulous Biblically-inspired oratorio. What better way to relax on this, the shortest day of the year, listening to these glorious sounds while pondering the triumphs and travails of the past year and hopes for the one that lies ahead? I marvel that we are improbably careening around the universe on a wet rock and that the sun's rays, which are now streaming in practically horizontally through south-facing windows, will once again begin to tilt towards vertical in the days and months ahead.