I veered out of the mall proper and very soon after spotted the absolute last place I'd ever want to go. Thus in the bleak Christmas spirit of "how much worse can things get?" I wheeled into the "neighborhood" Applebee's. I might mention that I refer to the chain as Crapplebee's.

Ho, ho, ho-o-o-ld it just one yuletide minute. What in the hell am I doing in here? And why is everybody so damn happy? If this is how the other half lives -and eats - well I still don't want any part of it, though maybe that makes me cranky. That is what I was thinking. But maybe I should begin at the beginning.

Snippets of truncated Christmas songs tumbled around my brain like a juddering radio hurtling through dozens of "all-holiday, all the time" stations while stuck on scan. I might mention that I don't much care for Christmas songs.

And lately I'm having my doubts about Christmas. Actually my seasonal affected un-holly-jolly disposition is one of my enduring holiday traditions, and it's distinctly linked to another: the family guilt-induced pilgrimage(s) to the shopping mall(s). I might mention that I have a huge and generous family.

So once again I was scowling through woeful weather, prowling through aneurysm-provoking parking lots and howling through unhealthy spikes in misanthropy while observing blurry streams of hurrying shoppers robotically going through their motions. And all this for the "pleasure" of blowing money on stuff I didn't want. Yeah, they don't call this the most wonderful time of the year for nothing.

Anyway, when it finally came time for a food-and-drink break, I couldn't think of a single establishment that might ease the clinch seizing up my Grinch-like face. Besides, I'd had it up to here, there and everywhere with the punishing shopping mall experience.

So I veered out of the mall proper and very soon after spotted the absolute last place I'd ever want to go. Thus in the bleak Christmas spirit of "how much worse can things get?" I wheeled into the "neighborhood" Applebee's. I might mention that I refer to the chain as Crapplebee's.

But there's no denying the operation is like some kind of sensation. I mean, it seems like there's an Applebee's nearby (but rarely in) most every mall across the nation, and the popular places always look packed. Why? Well, I thought I'd find out; or, to short-change an already-coined phrase: in for a penny-pinching, in for a pounding. Besides, I wasn't finding any true meaning of Christmas anywhere else.

Once inside, I noticed they'd come from all walks of life. There were groups of students, huddles of housewives, gaggles of guys, couples out on a date. And apart from a tendency toward rotundity and alarming hairstyles, I quickly discovered they were united by one desire: a deep love of spinach dip.

Let me be more specific -it was spinach dip at half price. You see, Applebee's has expanded and lowest-common-denominator-ed the "small plates" craze by offering happy hour prices on drinks and appetizers almost all day (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.).

And on that day, the teeming Applebee's crowd did not seem downtrodden by the economy, winter or corporate blandness. No, the customers were (nearly) all drinking and laughing and eating plate after plate of fatty food delivered by an amazingly friendly waitstaff.

All of those appetizers were stunningly cheap and huge. Like the nachos (warm chips, industrial toppings and sweet-ish "taco meat") and boneless wings (insanely heavy breading) and a veggie pizza thing not without its junk-food appeal (a large and flimsy flour tortilla smeared with sloppy, greasy and salty toppings). The best Apple-tizers I ate were bone-in wings (standard, but big and plentiful) and that ubiquitous dip (broiler-browned, dairy heavy and deserving of its mass appeal).

I guess Applebee's wasn't all that bad. Luckily, I was there at happy hour -paying full price (around $8 per appetizer) would have been unthinkable. Relatedly, it's hard to complain about, say, 22 ounces of Stella Artois for $2 and change.

While exiting Applebee's, I noticed a scrawny little Christmas tree in the foyer strewn with cheap lights and paper cards. I examined a couple of cards: "Boy, 5 year old, football and helmet" and "Girl, 7 year old, MouseTrap Game."

I might mention I literally quivered in the sudden storm of sadness that coated me like quick-falling snow when I realized these were Christmas wishes from kids in the custody of Franklin County Children's Services. I plucked off one of the cards, slid it into my wallet, and silently thanked Applebee's for showing me the true meaning of Christmas.