Let us consider, for the moment, the case studies.

On the 11th day preceding Christmas 1985, a male was discovered huddled in the corner of the shopping mall, clutching a piece of paper with one hand. The other hand, or at least its thumb, was firmly located in his mouth.

The subject in question was not a lost child. He had a good deal of gray hair in his beard. By reading the identification in his wallet, our research team determined that this man ran a large business and had once been a wartime medic. But now all he was able to say in response to our interview was, "Where are the four calling birds? Get me the three French hens."

On the following Monday, a female was seen hyperventilating in the cashier's line. It turned out that she was a journalist who had covered coups and crises in Central America. But as the team was questioning her further, the woman suddenly bolted. Chasing her to the parking lot, following her up the highway, we identified her behavior as typical of the panic flight reaction we had seen in antelopes pursued by lions.

The very next afternoon a third subject, and then a fourth, entered a department store purposefully, normally, and instantly turned glassy-eyed, heaving frantically. One immediately dropped her list in the nearest bin and began grabbing gift-wrapped items off nearby tables. The other tried repeatedly to press his credit card on members of our research team, asking them with a fixed smile for "Six assorted gifts please. Just charge them."

These four were duly, scientifically, added to the sad, even tragic, series of case studies that we have collected lo these many Yuletides. Now, however, we feel our studies are complete. It is time to share our analysis of a full-blown psychological disease. We call it Christmas Agoraphobia.

Until now, the fear of the Christmas marketplace has been suffered by millions of Americans. Alas, each of them believed "I must be the only one." Christmas Agoraphobia was thus kept a dirty little secret. It was never granted the status of a disease by our peer groups.

Today, however, we can detail the history as well as the symptoms of this syndrome. We can say with certainty, for example, that Christmas Agoraphobia was the primal motive behind the adult fantasy known as Santa Claus. It is not children who need a Santa as their decision- making, purchase and delivery system, after all, but adults. We created the mythology of overtime elves and flying reindeers in an attempt to protect our young from the cold truth of American adult life: The Mall.

Christmas Agoraphobia comes to the American mall-goer in the shape of that psychic bugaboo, sensory overload. Christmas shopping is to shopping as mugging is to caressing. To be more exact, an analysis of our data shows that the Christmas shop is the consumer equivalent of a rock concert. It assaults the average sensibility into insensibility.

The crowds would overwhelm a Tokyo train station, and the lines would challenge the patience of an experienced Moscovite. But it's the options and the pressure of deciding that produce a full- fledged all-American panic.

We had one woman in our study who easily explained to us what our foreign policy should be toward the Philippines. She was recorded later by our hidden camera in a state of sweaty indecision trying to select one of 32 shirts for her niece. A man who was confident in advising us about the fate of the stock market was later seen accosting strangers and asking which of four watches his wife would prefer.

Of course, some (the control group in our research) deal with their Christmas Agoraphobia by avoidance, otherwise known as catalogues. Others simply engage in denial and can be seen in a critical state of the disease on Christmas Eve. A third group (we label them paranoids) are convinced that department stores are guilty of planned agoraphobia, creating a climate of panic in order to induce impulse spending. Who would pay $150 for an ounce of Giorgio perfume, except a poor soul trying to avoid imminent breakdown by buying anything at hand in a box?

We at the research institute are mere fledglings in the study of this syndrome. As yet we have no cure, except January. But we are pleased to tell Christmas Agoraphobics that they no longer need be ashamed.

Come out of the chimney, whoever you are. It is not the spirit of giving that you lack, but the spirit to get what must be given.