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Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2003 / 9 Kislev, 5764

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Consumer Reports

Blame the Puritans | ORANGE CITY, Fla. — A mob of shoppers rushing for a sale on DVD players trampled the first woman in line and knocked her unconscious as they scrambled for the shelves at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

— Associated Press

In sorting out the sociological significance of the fact that rival shoppers, according to the trampled woman's sister, "walked over her like a herd of elephants," note that elephants do not behave that way to others of their species. They would not behave that way even if they were stampeded by a 6 a.m. siren announcing, on the famously anarchic day after Thanksgiving, open season on a finite supply of $29 DVD players. But, then, elephants do not have Christmas celebrations.

Conservatives, in their simplistic way, will blame the Florida trampling on facets of human nature to which the Christmas story pertains — mankind's fallen condition, meaning original sin. Liberals, being less judgmental and more alert to the social causes of things, will blame Wal-Mart. They already blame it for many flaws in creation, from low wages in Asia to America's "loss of community." By this, liberals mean the migration of shoppers from large-hearted Main Street merchants to the superior variety and lower prices at the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.

But at the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was not the character in English literature who said, "We shall soon be having Christmas at our throats," consider this possibility. Perhaps, as liberals like to say, the "root cause" of modern Christmas discontents is the ruinous success of Puritanism — ruinous, that is, to Puritanism.

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That Christmas-at-our-throats fellow is a character in a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, who was as sweet-tempered as Scrooge was not. If the Christmas season, as it has come to be, could cause the preternaturally amiable Wodehouse to pen such a dark thought, how did it come to this?

That God works in mysterious ways is not news, but it is particularly puzzling that the birth of Jesus occurred when Romans, who then set the tone of the times, were celebrating Saturnalia — think of a Wal-Mart at 6 a.m., plus wine, women (wearing less than those little Wal-Mart vests) and songs that are not carols. Songs that would not have been amusing to Oliver Cromwell, whose piety caused him to ban the celebration of Christmas.

He did the right thing for the wrong reason. A Puritan scold and a killjoy, he thought Christmas had become too much fun, which is not our problem today, unless getting trampled is your idea of merriment.

Today's problem, in addition to the toll taken on the body by seasonal wassailing and gorging, is shopping that includes stocking up on "retaliation presents." They are used to counter unexpected gift-giving by persons not on your list, which by now includes family, friends, the stockbroker who got you out of Enron in time and the person who cleans your gutters.

The first Americans included a number of Cromwell's fellow travelers, who, like him, saw the long arm of the papacy behind Christmas festiveness.

It was, they thought, a short slide down a slippery slope from liturgical "smells and bells" to jingle bells and mulled cider. But in a delicious dialectic, the modern hedonistic Christmas emerged from the cultural contradictions of Puritanism.

Puritanism inculcated Scrooge-like asceticism, deferral of gratification, green-eyeshade parsimony and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. But those led to accumulation, investment of surplus capital and, in time, prodigious production and a subversive — to Puritanism — cornucopia of material delights.

Soon there were department stores, those cathedrals of consumption. Against their plate glass windows — prerequisites for "window shopping"; precursors of the holiday shopping catalogue — were pressed the noses of the Puritans' descendants.

Those noses no longer detected a sulfurous stench of damnation wafting from the stores' perfume counters. Those counters, you may have noticed, are strategically placed on the stores' first floors, to start the shoppers' pleasure synapses firing.

The Wal-Mart stampede style of Christmas was a long time coming. It was, for example, not until 1885 that federal workers were even given Christmas Day off. Which, come to think about it, is odd. Here in modern Washington, Christmas Day is one of the minority of days that are not like Christmas elsewhere — not devoted to the lavish disbursement of gifts.

At least a portion of the government's largess can be considered a gift because part of the cost is debt that will be paid by others. By future generations. They are not consulted, but surely they will pay cheerfully, in the Christmas spirit.

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