Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

November 29, 2012

Holiday Happenings in keeping with spirit

The Andover Townsman

---- — Andover is 32 square miles and has more than 30,000 residents. One of those annual events that keeps this community feeling like a small town is approaching.

Holiday Happenings, an event that closed Main Street for a tree lighting, music and horse-drawn hayrides, is coming to town next Friday night, Dec. 7. The event is organized by the Andover Business Center Association, and is meant to draw people to the downtown with special deals at the local mom-and-pop shops.

We have a feeling that among all the cocoa and costumed characters and horse-drawn hayrides we won’t here of anyone being knocked down to get the last of the Wii U gaming systems.

Our sister paper, the Eagle-Tribune recently listed some of the headlines of the “Black Friday” shopping rush that were posted on The Drudge Report website:

“Gang fight at Black Friday sale.”

“Man punched in face pulls gun on line-cutting shopper.”

“Shoppers smash through door.”

“Customers run over in parking lot.”

“Men steal boy’s shopping bag.”

There are many more. Taken together, they raise a question: Have we, as a nation, gone insane?

All this violence and mayhem — for what? To save a few bucks on a toy or the latest electronic gadget? What is the cost to the human spirit of this frenzy of consumerism?

It’s wonderful to be able to give a gift or two to a child or other family member at Christmas or Hanukkah. But somehow, that desire to give has become corrupted into “must have or the holiday will be ruined.”

We’ve seen this kind of collective insanity before. Usually, it is associated with a hot new toy or product that everyone wants. Recall the mania for Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo dolls or the rush to get the latest video-gaming system. People fear that the supply will run out so an atmosphere of panic buying develops.

This year, however, it seems there is no “Big New Thing.” Yet people are engaging in the same kind of desperate, driven shopping behavior for ordinary products they can buy any day.

Charles Mackay would understand it. In his 1841 classic “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, Mackay looked at, among other topics, obsessive economic behavior. One example he explored was the famous “Dutch tulip bubble” of the early 1600s, during which a mania for tulips drove prices for tulip bulbs sky-high.

While there is some dispute among economists today about the scope of the tulip bubble, the principle illustrated by Mackay remains: that a fear of being “left behind” will drive people to assign great worth to things of little intrinsic value.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one,” Mackay wrote.

Retailers, of course, understand this behavior very well. Much has been written that some of the deals offered on Black Friday are no great deals at all. But no one wants to be the dupe who missed out on the “big sale.”

There’s nothing wrong with retailers putting items on sale to draw shoppers into their stores. The practice is as old as selling itself. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with being a bargain-hunting shopper. Seeking out the best deals can be an adventure.

But there is no call for angry, violent or even criminal behavior. Hordes of people rampaging through stores seeking the best for themselves is a mark of barbarism, not a civilized society. Further, it is a corruption of the spirit of the holiday season. Holiday Happenings, organized by the local business community, is a bit of a return to the type of shopping experience one might expect in “The Christmas Story” or other nostalgic yarn. It is fun for all, even those who buy nothing at all.

It is our hope that everyone will find the gifts of their dreams this year — without sacrificing the spirit of peace and brotherhood that is the true meaning of the season. It is our hope that they will find a community of people they enjoy being with, too.