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15 December 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

God and Mammon mingle in the mall

The beginning of the religious festival of Advent in America coincides with the biggest and most fre

By Andrew Stephen

Patricia Van Lester, a 41-year-old woman from Orange City, Florida, is certain to remember her Black Friday this year. With her eye on a DVD player for $29, she rushed into her local Wal-Mart when it opened before dawn – only to be trampled to the ground in the rush. “They walked over her like a herd of elephants,” complained her sister, Linda. While being trampled on, Van Lester suffered a seizure and was taken unconscious by helicopter to a hospital in Daytona Beach. “We want her to come back as a shopper,” said a Wal-Mart Stores spokesman afterwards.

I should explain that the day following Thanksgiving Day in the US is invariably known in retail business circles as Black Friday. It traditionally marks the start of the Christmas and New Year shopping rush, and the day when stores go into the black after suffering fallow months in the red; the “holiday shopping” season regularly accounts for between 25 and 40 per cent of a store’s annual sales. The season normally has 26 shopping days, but because of a quirk in the calendar this year it is 27. Year by year, there is an increase in shopping sales in the US of between 2 and 8 per cent. The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday spending will increase by almost 6 per cent this year, compared with last year, meaning that the average American shopper will spend $672 on presents this year compared with $649 last year.

I’ve always been puzzled by the paradox in America that, in a society that is supposed to be 84 per cent Christian, so many turn wholeheartedly to Mammon in the pre-Christmas period of Advent. Shopping malls are now temples of consumerism, but in the past year I have noticed a new trend. The highly fashionable place to hold a party, particularly if it is to launch something, is now a store. Expensive parties that would once have been held in hotels or clubs – or, more recently in New York, Washington or Chicago, in museums if a suitable one was available – are now held in upmarket shops.

It is, indeed, the final accolade for consumerism. Who would have thought that the post-screening party for the New York premiere of The Last Samurai earlier this month would be held in Barneys, an upmarket clothing store? There was strict security to get inside, and all cameras were confiscated – presumably lest someone snap an unflattering shot of Tom Cruise. Then, suddenly, you were amid men’s ties, women’s handbags and sushi, listening to Hollywood moguls thrashing out their latest deals. It was a logical marriage of Hollywood cool and Manhattan fashionista chic: a consumerist dream come true. Thus zillions are now spent on creating super-expensive fashion stores such as Barneys or Prada, so that they possess what the advertising men call “the perfect shopping environment” for the rich to strut their stuff and (perhaps more important) to be seen to be doing so.

It is much the same story when you go downmarket to the American masses’ shopping habits. Three decades ago, America had 11,000 shopping malls; that number has now reached 45,000. They occupy 5.5 billion square feet of American land, generating more than $1trn in annual sales. And just as the moguls feel at home in the likes of Barneys, so American families feel safe and secure at their shopping malls – which, naturally, is exactly what the architects and planners envisaged. With most town centres now deserted, and even dangerous at night, malls present the perfect alternative for a sense of dreamy self-indulgence and security – starting with effortless, safe parking.

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Going inside the mall is actually quite like going into church; a family occasion where all are welcome, in the mall’s case to stroll around plasterboard piazzas where real trees flutter in a climate-controlled environment with the sun always shining (some malls are open 24 hours a day). For younger children, there is invariably a cinema showing mainly kids’ films – so that children can be left while parents saunter around the enticing parades of shops. Or the kids can have their McDonald’s burger’n’fries while parents have more sophisticated meals. For younger teenagers, the mall is the perfect hang-out venue – safe, well-lit, welcoming, unthreatening. Stay all day at a mall for a family day out with everyone’s needs catered to? Why not?

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A new phenomenon – stores especially for teenagers hanging out – has spawned specialist teenage stores, a risky experiment that, nevertheless, appears successful. The Crystal Mall in Waterford, Connecticut, features shops such as American Eagle Outfitters – and on Black Friday this year was crowded out with 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds of both genders trying on clothes. From the clothes shops, these affluent suburban teenagers gravitate towards other seductive stores selling mobile phones, digital cameras, video games and rock music. The circle of commercialism is complete inside one shopping mall.

Thus malls have become sacred temples, inseparable from the American way of life. “They nurture the soul and the society, not just the body and economy,” writes Robin Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre at Oxford. “In their untutored wisdom the families and the kids have made them serve the difficult end of being human places for human beings.” Meanwhile, money continues to change hands – often at a rate that is astonishing when you actually see the tills frantically at work. “Retail therapy . . . shop till you drop” – the supposedly self-mocking cliches of better-educated Americans proliferate to justify the doomed sense of potency that excessive, money-wasting spending creates. Shopaholism is now a syndrome recognised by American psychiatrists.

The collective American delusion persists, however, that spending money creates happiness. In his recent book One Nation Under Goods: malls and the seductions of American shopping, Professor Jim Farrell of St Olaf College, Minnesota, clearly states his belief in the sanctity of retail therapy. “Malls are places where we make statements about the good, the true and the beautiful,” he writes. “Most academics are disdainful of shopping centres, but I find much to appreciate,” Farrell told his college newspaper, preparing a new generation of consumerist dreamers to worship at the feet of such ventures as Microsoft, Nike, Hallmark and Pepsi.

This devotion to spending is having an interesting new result. Churches, helplessly watching the Advent exodus to the malls, are also moving there. The First Presbyterian Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey, for example, has decided that if shoppers won’t come to it, then it will go to the shoppers. It has leased, for $39,000 a year, a 2,500-square-foot storefront in the Burlington Centre Mall where 65 volunteers work each week. Like churches at airports, these places are oases where shoppers can find spiritual rather than retail therapy. And shoppers come in: a couple who’d had a fight (he flushed his wedding ring down the toilet) found themselves there for, it turned out, successful counselling.

In its first 12 days at the Plymouth Meeting Mall, Pennsylvania, another Presbyterian venture proved equally successful – with mall-walkers (those who don’t spend money at the malls are known as “mall-rats”) just popping casually into a makeshift church. The Reverend Scott Bohr, the pastor, reports that he sees people such as single mothers who fear they can’t meet the month’s rent, or other mall-walkers who say things like: “I might come try you out. I don’t have much time for church, but I hear your church is different.”

In the South – only in the South, mind – the churches are going one step further: actually buying whole malls outright in attempts to make them simultaneously temples of God and of Mammon.

In Concord, North Carolina, the First Assembly of Concord Baptist church – one of America’s megachurches – has bought the Village Shopping Centre. They call it “Christian capitalism”: shoppers can fulfil their spiritual as well as retail needs in one place. In Houston, a conglomeration of churches has bought and renovated an old Wal-Mart store.

It is not so much money, say the churches with one voice, but love of money that’s the sin.

And so America finds another way of reinventing itself, “holiday season” commercialism merging with the Christian message it supposedly inspired in the first place. The tills continue to do furious business – that, naturally, remains the overwhelming aim of the mall owners and leasers. Wal-Mart alone had sales of $1.52bn on Black Friday, which meant a 6.3 per cent increase on last year’s tally.

Poor Patricia Van Lester almost lost her life under the trampling hordes at the beginning of the joyous Christmas season. Imbia Barry of Marietta, Georgia, was much luckier: she lost only her scarf in the headlong rush into her Wal-Mart at 6am. “It was an adrenalin rush,” she reports, adding that she had waited in the queue since 3.30am. She bought two desktop computers with 17-inch monitors for $498 each (normally these would cost about $800). At the KB Toys store at the King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia, Rogeline Jean was even more enthusiastic. “At first, I was just grabbing stuff,” she says. “It was overwhelming.” She spent $700 in her first hour of shopping. By the end of the day, she had spent $2,500.

Jesus would perhaps have been more revolutionary in his view of the part shopping malls play in the American way of life. In the Peterson translation of the New Testament (by a professor from Vancouver), John 2:16 actually has Him saying: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall!” Would He have overturned the cash registers of Nike, Microsoft, etc – to say nothing of those in Barneys and Prada?

It all remains an inherent contradiction in America: the apparently everlasting, supposedly quite natural twinning of Mammon with Christianity, especially in this “holiday season”. I have no ready explanation for why and how such a paradox persists, except to say that the views of that Christian 84 per cent do not correlate with my own views of what Christmas means – though I claim no moral superiority. In the meantime, Happy Christmas.

Andrew Stephen is the New Statesman‘s US editor