Christmas Story – 2017
When I was kid… Don’t you love it when an old person begins a story with those words? You prepare yourself for a lecture about the good old days and when times were simple and better followed by a lecture about the terrible condition of the world today. I know you don’t want to hear that and neither do it.
But, when I was a kid one of the best things about Christmas happened sometime in October, perhaps as early as September some years. It was the arrival of the annual Sears Christmas Catalog. It later became known as the Sears Christmas Wish Book, but it was originally called a catalog.
We actually received two catalogs from Sears every year. Earlier, perhaps in the spring, I’m not sure, we received a large one about the size of a big city phone book. It had everything imaginable for a family and home except for toys. Without the toys, the big catalog was of little interest. I’ll confess when I got older and became a teenager the big catalog had a little more fascination for me. The section with women’s underwear was the closest I ever came to dirty magazines at our house.
But about two-thirds of the pages of the one that arrived in the fall consisted of toys. It had pictures of every toy we had ever heard of and thousands of toys we didn’t even know existed. Each toy was represented with a bright colored photo followed by a paragraph or two description of what the toy was all about. The special toys were featured in photos with kids playing with them.
We always knew that catalog was on the way when the weather started to cool down for the winter. I don’t know about other kids, but in our family, we were not allowed to look at the mail before Daddy and Mama. It’s not clear if they were hiding stuff from us but I never gave it a second thought; that’s just the way it was.
When the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived, Mama would bring it to us. It had a brown wrap around the outside and tearing that away was as exciting as opening any gift. My sister and I would study it for hours. I’m sure I spent more time with it that she ever did. I say I’m sure about that, but I don’t really know. I never paid much attention to what she was doing when I wasn’t involved. I do know that I spent many hours with the book. So much so that by early December the pages in the toy section were dog-eared and crinkled.
Thumbing through the pages was living in a fantasy world where every dream can be a reality. I drove the electric race cars around the track that looked like it stretched for miles. I was a fearless driver, but my car never flew off the tracks. I picked out colors for all the cars and trucks I wanted.
I also remember playing with the largest Erector Set you could buy. An Erector Set was a fascinating toy for a kid. It consisted of thin metal slats with a row of drilled holes arranged like button holes on a shirt. I understand they still have them today but now they consist of a bunch of plastic pieces rather than all metal. It had a box filled with small nuts and bolts that you could insert through the holes and attach the metal slats together. With a vivid imagination, you could build a house or a windmill or some other structure. The catalog always featured the sets with small electric engines to be used for trains, large cranes, or other movable pieces. In my mind, I built complete cities using the sets that could be ordered from Sears. It was kind of like Sim City without the electronics.
There was always a piece of notebook paper, and a pencil stuck between the pages of the catalog. It was there so I could make a list of the things I especially wanted from the catalog. I don’t remember ever believing in Santa, so I was making the list for Mama and Daddy. There were many entries and almost an equal number of erasure marks on my paper because I knew I had to narrow it down to one or two items. Over the three months exegeting that catalog, my favorites changed numerous times.
The reason my list could only contain one or two items was because I knew that’s the most I would ever get. That’s why I didn’t really believe in Santa. If everything they said about him was true, then I was getting cheated somehow. We hung up Christmas stockings, usually Daddy’s because they were larger, but when we charged into the living room on Christmas morning the only things in those stockings were the fruit and nuts that had been displayed on the dining table for the past few days. That stuff didn’t come from a joyous fat bearded man who gave out free gifts.
It was even quite likely I would not even receive the gift at the top of my Christmas wish list tucked carefully between the pages of the catalog. We didn’t have much money in those days, so Christmas morning typically consisted of one nice present, a package of underwear (for some reason, Santa was always practical at our house), and maybe a book to read or a small toy of some kind.
I discovered years later in a conversation with Daddy that the reason we received the Sears Catalogs was because they bought Christmas gifts with a Sears credit card. They could pay it off over the next couple of months, which was not an easy feat for them. I was totally surprised by this revelation because I never knew Mama and Daddy ever had a credit card. Daddy was a fulltime pastor of a small church, and they paid him $100 per month. There were other perks like an occasional chicken he had to kill, vegetables from the garden Mama had to can, and a few times a month an invite to someone’s house for Sunday dinner.
Even though I knew the Sears Christmas Catalog did not mean all those toys would magically appear under our tree on Christmas morning, that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of endlessly thumbing through the pages. Although the toys seldom arrived, having the catalog and a vivid imagination meant that my Christmas began in October with a gift from the mailman and lasted into the next year.
Sears doesn’t publish the Wish Book any longer. In fact, nearest I can tell they stopped twenty-four or twenty-five years ago. We don’t need it any longer now that we have eBay, Amazon, and countless other suppliers. Finding what you want is much easier nowadays—just a couple of clicks, and it arrives on your doorstep two days later.
Not only are the catalogs not available, we no longer need an imagination. Kids spend countless hours watching stuff but not imagining stuff. If they want to know what it’s like to play with a toy, just find a video of other kids doing it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a different thing.
I wonder how many kids today would be content with one gift, not even off the top of their list. Perhaps the reason they would be dissatisfied is because they haven’t had the opportunity of playing with numerous gifts for the past few months in their imagination. I don’t recall ever being disappointed with Christmas. I loved everything about it, even cracking open the walnuts retrieved from Daddy’s stocking.