Let’s start with the source: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar had the good social graces not to arrive at the scene of the holy Nativity empty-handed. Judging from the timing of their arrival, they got cagy and waited for the steepest discounts in early January, when retailers cut their losses. Presuming that the holy family wasn’t registered at Pottery Barn, they went with those basics for any starter stable – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Oh, please, I don’t want to hear any sonorous sanctimony about how the holidays, especially the Christmas holidays, are not about material things. If you want to get technical, that’s exactly what the holiday is about: the ethereal made concrete, the word made flesh.
In the spirit of the magi, Angelenos are willing to wait in the cold and travel vast distances for their retail epiphanies. Black Friday campouts now take on the cultural status of Burning Man for the electronics-minded: just substitute visions of $78 flat-screen TVs and bargains on digital cameras and laptops in the place of earnestly face-painted drum circles and shamanic yodeling contests.
The people of Los Angeles bring a unique sense of joy to the potentially grueling stretch of shopping that often begins at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Walking (well, waddling) with friends in an attempt to burn off heaps of cornbread stuffing, pomegranate-cranberry relish, buttered yams and Viking-proportioned slabs of bird with gravy, we encountered the faithful lining up on the Third Street Promenade as the fog rolled in from the Pacific. Even among the hipster fedoras and flava savas, an innocent bonhomie prevailed, alien to the Westside after sundown. The fact that the throngs busted down the door of Urban Outfitters around midnight in an attempt to score an ironically “unsightly holiday vest” per the catalog, strewn with felt snowmen and sequins, is simply further proof – these people are never enthusiastic about anything.
Further afield, even more homey scenes ensued at Sears, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Target stores where entire extended families were encamped, complete with entertainment, reading lights and snacks. There was chatting in English, Tagalog, Spanish and Farsi over the small-speaker tinkling of Vince Guaraldi, and the warblings of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Also lots of giggling from the pink meringuelike depths of a Hello Kitty sleeping bags from little ones tickled to stay up so late in the middle of such a great street party. We were offered warm donuts as we strolled and, although we were still stuffed, we accepted.
It’s a tired old saw to criticize Christmas shoppers as somehow having missed the point. Quite to the contrary, there is a feeling of joy around the Glendale Galleria and Americana at Brand malls as fake snow flies, and red and green lights twinkle. And it absolutely has to do with shopping.
Many retailers have reinstated a practice that hails from gentler economic times: the layaway. Genuine diamond studs, microwave ovens, cake-pop makers and all the rest have suddenly come more easily within reach, in spite of dire-looking graphs in the newspaper.
Acts of seasonal retail heroism have become an exhilarating part of L.A.’s culture of spontaneity. There are real savings to be had, along with diversity, camaraderie, caroling, choirs, Salvation Army brass bands, good times and, OK, an occasional spritz of pepper spray. But it’s the joy alone that makes my eyes water.
Victoria Thomas is a freelance writer. She lives in Pasadena.