High above the tiles and the despairing babies and the despondent, flat-footed shoppers, three men wrestled with a gigantic snowflake.
The snowflake was very heavy, and bristled with small lights which made it awkward to handle. But the men had a job to do, and they braced themselves against the snowflake and their backs took the strain and they barked instructions to each other.
As they fought the snowflake into place, they sweated. One of the men didn’t like having sweat run down his face. He kept ducking his head into his sleeve to mop up the droplets. But the others let it run unhindered. It dripped off the ends of their noses and caught the light. Falling stars made of distilled exertion plunged silently to the floor, and were wiped away by disconsolate flip-flops.
When the shoppers had walked in, an hour earlier, they might have smiled or talked to each other or had a sense of where they were going. The flip-flops had plip-plopped smartly on the tiles. But that was an hour ago and somewhere else. Here, in the main concourse of the mall, they had given up pretending and had allowed themselves to become passive, nudged this way by anxiety, pushed that way by dissatisfaction.
The problem was that they didn’t know what they were doing there. They knew they had to buy something, but they had no idea what. Worse, they had no idea why.
That’s what made it so awful. A decree had gone out that all the world should be vexed, but it hadn’t come from Caesar Augustus. It hadn’t come from anyone. It was simply known, which made it feel more like a psychological compulsion than a simple chore that had to be performed.
The men, however, knew why there were there. They were there to install the snowflake, so that it could shine its antiseptic blue light down on the shoppers. Their work was difficult and dangerous — the season of giving had not extended as far as a safety harness — but it was real and finite, and something the men could do well. If they wanted to, they might even take pride in it.
Their alertness made them seem as distant and dextrous as astronauts riding a tiny, glittering moon that had managed to stay clear of the pull of some all-crushing gas giant. It disoriented me. For a moment, I forgot where I was, and that all of this — the electrical snowflake, the stars of sweat, the sobbing of children — was for something called Christmas.
I stopped and stared at the men and thought, Why a snowflake?
Because it’s Christmas! sang 10,000 toy guns and plastic new-born babies with patented realistic sucking and nappy-wetting action and polyester pine trees wrapped in scratchy tinsel. And Christmas is about dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh and chestnuts roasting on an open fire!
Another drop of sweat fell to earth, and the nylon snow on the windowsills curled as the sun beat through windows frosted with hot, chemical-scented paint.
But, I asked the guns and the babies, when did we stop finding this absurd? Surely most of us sense the lunacy of men sweating in the African sun to erect a totem to a northern European celebration of the birth of a baby in the hot wastes of Judea?
I mean, this is cargo-cult territory, for God’s sake. We’re worshipping northern hemisphere precipitation. We’ve turned climate into catechism and it’s not even our climate.
There came the smell of roasting meat marinated in claustrophobia. The toys were impassive, so I tried again.
Guys, I said, can’t we just take a step back? Can’t we do away with the twinkly Scandinavian nonsense and just draw a clear and sensible link between the deserts of the Middle East and the deserts of South Africa’s shopping malls?
Or have I got it wrong? Are the stapled-on snow and the sun-brittle Styrofoam reindeer a secret yearning for Paradise? After all, hell is always the worst of where we are. That’s why the Middle Eastern hell is a fiery pit but the Viking version is eternal winter. Perhaps we’re just longing to be somewhere cold, where we can feel snug and safe and –
Something metaphysical tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned, and stared into the broad, imaginary chest of a security guard called Zeitgeist.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but we’ve had some complaints. Apparently you’ve been seen trying to bring Jesus and history in here, and it’s upsetting a lot of people who just want to celebrate Christmas.”
I opened my mouth to speak but he placed a finger on my lips.
“Just move along, sir,” he said.
High up overhead, they switched the snowflake on. It buzzed, sparked into life, and began to glow in the white-hot blinding afternoon.
First published in The Times