Before the astonished eyes of the attendant we skidded forth off the escalator.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 18, 1937

“So help me,” said Jimmie Frise devoutly, “I’ll never get caught in this last-minute Christmas rush again. So help me.”

“Millions and millions of people all over the world,” I informed him, “are saying the same thing, this same minute, in a hundred different languages.”

“So help me,” declared Jimmie firmly.

“You said it last year,” I stated. “You will say it next year. And so will all the other millions and millions.”

“Never again, so help me,” reiterated Jim, fiercely.

“There wouldn’t be any Christmas,” I said, “if there were no Christmas rush. That is what Christmas has come to mean. A time of crowding and gathering and jostling. A time of joy and weariness, of feasting and visiting. Of buying and selling.”

“Yeah, commercialized,” accused Jim.

“No, not commercialized,” I corrected. “That’s an easy sneer at Christmas. But suppose Christmas were nothing more than a holy day on the calendar, can you imagine how it would go by? Just as unremembered as any other holy day. Do you recall what you did on Good Friday three years ago? Certainly not. But you can remember what you did three, five, ten Christmases ago; who was at your house; how the children acted, especially the youngest one. You can count back. You can count back ten Christmases, when your youngest girl was three. And close your eyes, and there you can see it, as clear as if it were yesterday. Why? Because that was the year she crashed the Christmas tree in her new scooter, or something. And then, bit by bit, the whole dear, tender picture returns to you, and you’ve got something. A memory.”

“That’s all very well,” protested Jim, “anybody can get sentimental over Christmas and try to gloss over the evils of it. But I say, this Christmas crush is getting tougher all the time. And believe me, I’m through with it.”

“Tougher?” I cried. “My dear boy, nowadays it’s nothing compared to what it was a couple of thousand years ago, the day all this is supposed to commemorate. Don’t you remember that it was so crowded there wasn’t any room at the inn, and Joseph and Mary had to find a manger, in a stable?”

“Aw,” said Jim.

“Crowded?” I continued. “The streets jammed with people from miles around, and donkeys and camels, their bells tinkling and their drivers shouting and complaining and the inns roaring with trade and all the little shops filled with fighting people, trying to get waited on. Crowded? And detachments of Roman soldiers down from Jerusalem to help the tax enumerators do their work, and them in all the best billets in the little town. And the government men turning the front rooms of the inn into offices to work on their tax rolls, and outside, all the lineage of David lined up in queues and wanting to be away home again about their business. Crowded? Jimmie, Christmas has to be a kind of panjandrum, in memory of that day.”

“What Have You to Get?”

“Well, we’ve succeeded,” agreed Jim. “And Christmas has become the worst-tempered season of the whole year. Everybody tired and worried over money, and shopgirls so gaunt and white looking, and delivery men sloshing through the night, and factory girls working overtime, and store keepers dizzy for want of rest, and everybody’s nerves on edge and ready to crack any minute.”

“Fine,” I exulted. “Glorious. Instead of camel drivers shouting, we have car horns yelling impatiently, and instead of Roman soldiers lounging around keeping the crowds moving, we have extra police on duty. It’s a perfect representation.”

“Have you finished your shopping yet?” demanded Jim, grimly.

“No, siree,” I assured him. “I’ve still got a few things to get. And I’m proceeding with it in the spirit of the season. I’m going to be shoved and pushed and tramped on, and camel drivers are going to shout me out of the path, and Roman soldiers are going to thumb me on my way imperiously. I will rub shoulders with all my brethren, poor and rich. I will see, thrust close to mine, faces I have never seen before, thousands of them, my brothers in life. I will be full of pride and contempt and anger, all of them warm, healthy feelings. I will be conscious of my own importance, as I am pushed around by people far beneath me in money and clothes. That too is a nice sensation. There will be a great hum and roar of low sound, the sound of a multitude, and to men, so afraid of being alone, that great sound is always curiously comforting. There will be buying, selling, choosing, selecting, deciding. There will be possessing.”

“What have you to get?” inquired Jim.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I assured him, “which is another grand part of the whole business. That glorious aimlessness with which the multitude wander through the stores and along the streets, undecided, indecisive, at a loss, bewildered. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, too.”

“That’s what makes me so mad,” disagreed Jim. “Me trying to go direct to the ladies’ glove counter and having to fight my way through a solid scrimmage of people who don’t want to go anywhere, or else don’t know where they want to go. That vacant stare, mixed with weariness and crankiness, that’s the expression of Christmas.”

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” I argued, “if at Christmas, everybody went trimly and smugly and smartly direct to what they wanted? How cold, practical, chilly, the whole business would be. No, Jim, it’s that complete breakdown of everything sensible and reasonable that makes Christmas what it is, the pinnacle of the year.”

“Well, if you don’t know what you want,” said Jim.

“Oh, I know roughly,” I explained, “that I want something for a boy of thirteen something for an elderly lady and something for a man, a tie or a cigarette tray or something casual.”

Everything Seems to Bulge

“We may as well go together,” said Jim, wanly. “I’ve got to get something for two of my girls and some other odds and ends. When you have somebody with you, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Come along,” I said.

And we entered the downtown streets which, even at nine a.m. are already congested and which, by four p.m. are just a hopeless slow tangle. Where do they come from? Are all the offices and desks and work benches abandoned, these last few days before Christmas? Is everybody shopping? The pedestrian traffic is trebled and the wheel traffic at least doubled.

Everything seems to bulge. The streets are congested, the windows are congested. Doorways are not wide enough and from the wagons and trucks parcels project perilously. People cannot pass one another, even in straight walking, but have to pause and bunt and wriggle around. At every doorway, there is confusion.

Nobody seems to have his mind on what he is doing, a general uncertainty prevails. People are all looking up, looking left, right or down. Their mouths are slightly open, as if listening to something inside them. They halt suddenly, turn around and return the way they had come. They burst into little trots. At the intersections, they impatiently attempt to cross against a red light, change their mind, stand dreaming, and then, when the green light comes on the people behind have to push them to get them started.

Jim and I got into the tide and drifted with it, storewards.

“How about an air rifle for that boy of 13?” said Jim, helpfully.

“No,” I said, “he got one two years ago. How about one of those nice needlepoint vanity cases for your girls?”

“No, they’ve got all that stuff,” said Jim. “Could you get your boy one of those metal hammering outfits?”

“He’s got one,” I replied. “Say, I saw some of the swellest ski outfits the other day for girls. Little helmet things….”

“No, no,” cried Jim. “They’ve got so much ski stuff. I think that’s what keeps the snow away. I wish I had boys to buy for. They’re so much easier to choose for than girls.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” I assured him. “I can go right through a department store without seeing a single thing fit for a boy, and every place I look, I see something a girl would just love.”

“You wouldn’t think so,” said Jim, “if you had girls to look after. It’s just the other way round, as a matter of fact. The stores are simply bursting with stuff for boys, but there hasn’t been a new idea in the line of Christmas presents for girls in the last ten years.”

Going With the Current

 “You certainly are cockeyed, Jim,” I assured him, as we joined a great herd and charged across an intersection, bunting and shoving.

We arrived at the big stores. What had been the Niagara rapids of traffic here became Niagara Falls. Clinging together like mariners wrecked, we went with the raging currents, timidly daring to steer a course, whenever an eddy permitted, towards the elevators but ending up at the escalators instead. Trying to catch the up one, we were inexorably forced on to the down one, which took us to the basement, and there, by skillfully pretending not to want to reach the elevators, we succeeded in arriving there and caught one almost empty which took us to the seventh floor before we could battle our way free. By putting on an expression of joy as if the seventh floor were really seventh heaven, where we had been trying to get for years, we had hardly any trouble getting to the stairs, and we walked down three flights to the sporting goods department. Jimmie and I find one thing about the sporting goods department. In case we do get marooned there, we have something to look at.

“Roller skates,” cried Jimmie. “The very thing for your boy.”

“The very thing for your girl, you mean,” I corrected. “Anyway, they can’t roller skate in winter.”

One of the young temporary salesmen they have at Christmas, one of those boys with the expression of a mischievous wire-haired fox terrier in his eyes, overheard my remark.

“Let me show you, sir,” he said, “the latest thing. Here’s a floating power skate, a ball-bearing, knee-action roller skate that is so pleasant to use, a boy will ride on it winter, summer, in the rain, at night, all the time.”

Very skillfully, like a cowpuncher herding steers, he manipulated us out of the swarming traffic into a kind of pocket. And he handed us each a very fancy looking roller skate.

“A kid,” said the enthusiastic young salesman, “will be asking you for messages to go, if he has these skates, see? He’ll be out in the fresh air, taking easy, natural exercise all day long. They’re like velvet. They’re soundless, smooth, like floating in a canoe. Like blowing along on the wind. In fact, I’m saving my money to own a pair of those skates myself. sir.”

We examined them. They just looked like roller skates to me.

“I’d be having,” I said, “to buy new rollers, new wrenches, all the time. They’d leave marks all over the hardwood floors.”

“Just sit down here, sir,” said the young man. “Just sit here one second.”

I am always glad to sit. So is Jim. We sat. The young man squatted down and skillfully snapped a skate on to my foot.

“See?” he cried. “Modernized. A patent device. It just snaps on. Nothing to fall off or work loose. Just a second.”

He snapped the mate on.

“Now, sir,” he said, “just stand up on those.”

I stood up, cautiously, the young chap holding my elbows to steady me. He rolled me a foot or two.

“Did you ever,” he demanded, “feel anything so airy, so smooth, as the action of those skates?”

I took a couple of cautious slides, holding to the counter edge. It was certainly an eerie sensation. Floating is the word. I shoved myself pleasurably along the counter. When I turned, also cautiously, I saw that Jim had been outfitted with them and, being more leggy than I was trying a few slow curvy strokes with them, amidst the crowd swerving past.

“Slick, eh?” said Jim, whirling over to me and doing one of those skating carnival halts.

“How much are they?” I asked.

“I didn’t ask,” said Jim, and we looked for our young man, who, in the true spirit of Christmas, was already waiting on somebody else, letting us soak, as it were, on our skates.

“I think I’ll get a pair,” said Jim.

“I’d imagine they’re pretty high,” I said, “Did you ever feel anything so smooth?”

Watching for a Break

Holding each other, we took a couple of slides along the counter. We came to the main aisle. Jim was being a little too expert and his weight carried us out into the driving storm of doggedly moving humanity.

“Hey,” I said, missing my grab for the counter. “Hey.”

But how was anybody to know we were on wheels? We held fast to each other, as the thick, packed throng moved us pleasantly away, waiting for an opening or else a chance to seize hold of a pillar.

We had become involved, however, in one of those solid swarms that slowly shuffle, hour by hour, through the great stores these final festive days, and, since we were so tightly packed neither Jim nor I could stoop down to undo the skates from our feet, and since it would have been ridiculous to try to explain to the uninterested people pushing from behind or leaning back against us in front, we just let matters ride, until we got a break.

“Don’t struggle,” warned Jim quietly. “If we upset, we might start some kind of a panic. Take it easy.”

We took it easy. The ones behind shoved, the ones ahead laid back, and there, as snug as steers in a cattle car, we moved effortlessly along.

“Jim,” I confided, “this is an idea. I bet we could sell this idea to the big stores. Roller skates for rent, to make Christmas shopping easy.”

We rolled once around the sporting goods and twice around the toys. A couple of times, I thought I saw the chance to climb over small children and get a grip on a counter edge, but Jim’s grasp on my sleeve prevented me.

“Jim,” I said, “try to signal that young brat that is waiting on us.”

But the tide set out to sea and we started leaving the sporting goods.

“Jim,” I muttered, “turn your toes a little to the right, and try to steer us to the side. We’re getting out of the sporting goods into the hardware.”

We both turned our toes right, but it made no difference. We were just lightly and easily rolled along, at the pace of the throng.

“One thing,” said Jim, “we can’t fall down and be trampled to death.”

“Hardware passing,” I said. “Linoleums next.”

We slowly rolled through the linoleums, past the coconut matting into the hooked rugs.

“Watch for a break,” I advised, “and see if you can make a grab. Once we get out of the crowd, we can fall down and take them off.”

But through the hooked rugs we slowly floated, and suddenly a dreadful presentiment assailed me.

“Pssst,” I hissed, “the escalator!”

“I’m afraid,” said Jim, “we’re for it.”

We could hear the dull rumble of the escalator. We tried to thrust out of the throng, but with nothing to grip with but our hands, all we succeeded in doing was irritating people whose arms we clutched, and they glared at us haughtily. Slowly the throng thickened, packed, pressed together and leaned hard over, in the general determination to get to the escalator. It was hopeless. When your turn comes to the escalator, you take it, willy nilly. We took ours.

Clinging to the fat rubber rails, we kept upright. I tried to raise one leg in order to unfasten one of the skates, but my knee bunted the lady ahead of me in an undignified fashion and she turned and hissed–

“Don’t get fresh!”

So, swiftly, inevitably, we reached the bottom of the escalator without having any time to plan or organize our arrival. And on the shining steel plate which bottoms all escalators our feet rolled forth and our helpless hands had to let go the fat rolling rubber railing and, ingloriously we skidded forth before the astonished eyes of the attendant and such shoppers as had enough interest left in life to bother looking.

The attendant helped us take the skates off. He did not, as I suggested to him, suppose we were trying to steal the skates.

“Not a tall, not a tall,” he assured us. “Things like this are happening all the time during the Christmas rush.”

So we took the skates slowly back to the young temporary salesman, who had not noticed our absence, and told him we would think the matter over.


Editor’s Notes: This story serves as a reminder to anyone who bemoans that Christmas has become commercialized. Long before Charlie Brown complained about the commercialization of Christmas in 1965, people were complaining about it even earlier.

Old roller skates were metal and had to be strapped to your shoes. Since “one size fits all”, you needed a skate “key” to adjust the length to fit to your feet, and tighten and lock it.