By now, the last Christmas gift has been opened. Once-tidy family rooms are littered with boxes and haphazardly scattered gift wrap, ribbons and bows. There is a lull, and empty hush.

It hardly seems possible that just 24 hours ago, shoppers were packed into malls buying last-minute gifts; that children were perched on Santa's lap whispering 11th-hour wishes in his ear while merchants furiously rang up purchases and wrapped gifts.By now, Christmas 1994 is one for the record books. Retailers report the holiday season was one of the busiest in recent memory. Given early indications, shoppers spent generously this year. The increased spending was doubtless a sign of Utah's healthy economy. Many people have more disposable income this year made possible, in part, by the crush of mortgage refinancing earlier in the year that enabled homeowners to buy big-ticket items such as home furnishings and consumer electronics.

Although Utahns had more money to spend this year, their load was lighter. At best, holiday shopping is a labor of love. The chore begins with finding a place to park. Then shoppers must cope with other shoppers, stressed out clerks and antsy children suffering from sensory overload. And when the outing's done, they lug gifts to the car, providing they can remember where they parked it.

Certainly, the holidays have greater meaning than braving the malls. But when the commercialization of the season starts before Halloween, malls, discount stores and shopping centers become the focal point of the holidays. They remain so until Christmas Eve.

And then, on Christmas Day, it stops. For a day.

So enjoy the quiet.

Come Dec. 26, the madness begins anew with the busiest shopping day of the year.

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