Customs: But Once a Year

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"Ho! Ho! Ho!" laughed Santa, holding his tummy. "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

"Ho! Ho! Ho!'' chuckled the shopkeeper, listening to the jingle of the cash register. "Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!

"Haah?" grunted shoppers as they pounded their way into thickening throngs that filled the stores. "Ooops!" they said, and "Oof!" "Aughh!" and sometimes "Bah!" and sometimes "Oooh!"

These are some of the tones in the season of sounds. There are others: the soaring nobility of Handel's Messiah; the cheerful beauty of carols that somehow sound best in the snow outside somebody's front door at night; the tinkling bells on the live sheep in the village créche, and the clink of coins in the kettles set up for the poor; the thousand different squeals of joy that children invent.

Hash & Cash. These sounds are the obbligato to that great rite of Christmastide, the buying and giving of gifts. The sounds began before the Thanksgiving turkey had flaked into hash, and last week they were swelling in the annual crescendo. Across the U.S., people were throwing money around as if it were going out of style. The nation's department stores, glittering with tinseled trees and holly wreaths, were braced for what promised to be the biggest Christmas sales in history. In Detroit, Hudson's added 5,500 extra employees to handle the crush and the cash. Los Angeles' Vendome, specialists in wines, liquors and imported gourmandiana, was counting on $300,000 worth of Christmas business—nearly half of its annual take. In Boston a merchant estimated that "the busiest day of the Christmas season is 18 times as busy as any other day of the year." Amarillo's shopkeepers figured that the Christmas rush accounted for 25% of their annual gross. New York City stores reckoned it at 30%. Said a Salt Lake City jeweler: "If somebody abolished Christmas, I'd go out of business." All told, the nation's merchants will have rung up better than $5 billion in sales before the last tyke has crawled, all goose flesh, into bed on Christmas Eve.

The seasonal zeal for gift giving is not confined to the U.S. Taking their cue from the U.S., stores and streets all over Western Europe are decked out in Christmas trim to lure affluent buyers. In officially atheistic Russia, where the authorities frown upon the "bourgeois" tradition of Christmas, citizens still crowd into department stores and exchange gifts around the "New Year's trees" while children babble about "Grandfather Frost." In Hindu India, gifts and greetings are exchanged, and on Christmas Day the shops close and liquor prohibitions are relaxed. In Islamic Morocco, seven-year-old Princess Amina, daughter of the late King Mohammed V, will give a Santa Claus party for 2,000 children and present them all with gifts. In Japan, whose 700,000 Christians account for only .0075 of the population, canny retailers are decorating their stores with Christmas trees in the hope of inspiring a splurge of holiday purchases.

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