Wal-Mart Stampede: And So This is Christmas

01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I told my husband about the worker trampled by frenzied Wal-Mart shoppers on Friday morning, he thought it was a joke. "That sounds like some parody," he said. "What station were you watching? Comedy Central?"

I insisted it was real. Googling the incident, I showed him that even the New York Times was reporting it.

"Man, that's a tough way to go," he said, shaking his head. "What's wrong with people?"

I've been thinking the same thing for the past two days. What is wrong with people that they would become so hysterical over plastic toys or digital cameras or whatever Asian import that was on sale at daybreak Friday?

The irony is thick enough to make my head clang. People were so intent on buying things to express their love and caring for others that they couldn't care who they flattened in the process. Black Friday, indeed.

Yes, people are hurting financially, which makes a good deal extra desirable this year. But if you're that pinched, why not resuscitate a more personal and less costly kind of gift giving: bake cookies for friends; for a spouse, wrap up a coupon for a dinner out or a breakfast in bed.

I can't help but feel the incident is somehow a metaphor for what our society has become. Stuff trumps everything, it seems. Stuff trumps family. Instead of having relaxing morning with family the day after Thanksgiving, these people were out at 5 a.m. in the pursuit of more things. Stuff trumps good sense. People were at that Wal-Mart with children, according to reports. Is this what we want kids to learn about Christmas? That it's all about the score. Oh yeah, I forgot, that's already happened.

Stuff trumps a sense of humanity. Of course not everyone in that crowd was worked up into a slobber for a sale. Perhaps only a few were -- and they pushed everyone else along. But there had to be a number of people with so little disregard for life that they would literally step on others to get what they want.

"I don't understand how that kind of thing can happen," a Mexican friend said yesterday when we were talking about the stampede. "Why does everyone have to shop at the same time? Why do they want to get up so early?"

I tried to explain that the day after Thanksgiving has become an unofficial holiday in the States -- so blatantly commercial that no one even pretends it's about anything else but spending time with your local cash registers, making them sing.

I've spent three Christmases living in Mexico and am amazed at how non-commercial the holiday has remained here. There are no Santa Clauses, few Christmas trees, even fewer "Sale" signs in store windows. It's true that some big chain stores have opened up on the outskirts of my hometown of San Miguel de Allende; in fact, a Wal-Mart-owned discount store debuted just two weeks ago. You can find some fake Christmas trees for sale there and carols play over the loudspeaker -- often in English, which is such a jolt to hear.

But the real commercial heart of the holiday in Mexico appears to be the makeshift Christmas markets that set up in nearly every town of any size. In these markets, merchants sell Noche Buena (poinsettias), evergreen branches for garlands and Nativity figurines of varying sizes. Whole stalls are devoted to miniature mangers or to elaborate clothing for the Baby Jesus dolls that will complete the crèche after Christmas Eve.

Christmas is still a religious holiday in Mexico, but I realize that could very well change. I'm certainly not saying that Mexico has everything figured out, but I do know that during the past three Christmases I've enjoyed the peace, reverence and joy of the Christmas market. There, I see people strolling around -- calmly, happily -- looking for items that will make their home feel more like the first Christmas. For me, the market has been a perfect antidote to the commercial craziness that spins to the north of us this time of year. I'm sure that will be even more true this Christmas.