Friday, October 19, 2007

Jingle Bells?

I think it is official. The Christmas season is upon us. I'm not talking about the religious version of the baby in the manger with a star shining brightly overhead and angels singing a delightful glor-or-or-ia. I'm referring to the merchandizing frenzy that often resembles a school of sharks going after a bucket of chum; customers fighting over the last few Tickle Me Elmos and the merchandisers who know how to stock the shelves with just the right number of the giggling muppets to keep harried moms from starting a riot.

For the last couple of weeks, stores have been decking their aisles with tinsel and garlands. I've already seen the season's first Christmas trees up and decorated. I've passed by boxes of wrapping paper and greeting cards. But my real clue that the holidays are nearing is in the number of catalogs the postman puts through our mail slot every day. It's embarrassing. It's pointless. Most of all, it is a sad reminder of how times have changed.
When I was a kid - one of five who whole-heartedly believed in the magic of Christmas - the season began with the delivery of one catalog. One precious book that had to be shared by the whole family. The Sears and Roebuck Wish Book.

The delivery of the Wish Book was like receiving a personal invitation to the grand opening of Santa's Toy Shop. The cover was always glitzy with a wide-eyed child dressed in holiday finery looking with wonder at a Christmas tree bedecked with all the trimmings. We passed around the dream maker like it was the Holy Grail, while visions of gifts to come danced in heads. Mom would let each one of us pick out what we hoped Santa would bring. Although she was surely limited in what she could afford, I don't remember any limits put on our list making. We counted down the days til Christmas wishing and hoping.
I don't know how my sisters did it but I was pretty methodical. I'd start at the beginning and scrutinize every page, giving each item a careful going over. I didn't spend a lot of time at the beginning of the book where the cute, yet practical, items were featured. Like the tangarine in the toe of our filled-to-the-brim Christmas stockings, it was a pretty sure bet that everyone would receive a new pair of flannel pj's. Nothing makes for a Christmas Kodak moment like little girls excitedly wiping the sleep out of their eyes, as they approach the gift-laden tree, clad in their matching jammies and slipper socks.
Holiday dresses and finery followed the pajamas and undergarments (let's face it, what's a Sears catalog without an underwear section?). I've got to say I've still got a soft spot in my heart for the red velvet jumpers. I always felt very grown up and pretty in velvet matched up with white tights (knee socks or stockings depending on the age) and shiny dress up shoes. (I still harbor a secret desire for patent leather Mary Janes. When it comes to shoes, you can have your Manolo Blahniks, I'll take Buster Brown any day.)
After the presents were opened we'd don our new outfits for the official family photo. From my mom down to the youngest daughter, we would pose collectively, then individually, for the annual fight over who was going to smile or not. Since Dad was the official photographer, he was not required to wear velvet. Even without going back and looking through old photos, I'd bet he was sporting a new plaid shirt!
There must have been stuff in the Wish Book that would have interested boys but none that made much of an impression on the Reynolds girls. Although I do remember the year Santa brought Jo a many-pieced erector set, complete with her own screw driver set and how my inner boy child was a tad envious. But not for long. In our house, baby dolls of every size that came with a variety of human attributes (Betsy Wetsy, Chatty Cathy, Saucy Walker) were what Christmas was all about.
Fast forward to today's marketing catalog blitz. This year I've let them pile up to get an idea of exactly how many are delivered beween September and December. LL Bean, Northsytle, Paragon, Chadwick, Oriental Trading Company, etc., etc., etc. Needless to say, the stack is growing by leaps and bounds; sometimes two versions of the same book in one day. In order to prevent the watch dog from being knocked uncounscious by the incoming mail I've had start standing at the mail slot and catch the stack as it drops through. Don't you know the mailman is happy about delivering our mail? [Photo L: 120 catalogs and still counting]

Since most of my opinions are based on gut-feeling rather than well-researached information, I shy away from political discussions. For example, qualified as Al Gore might be, I think the Nobel Peace Prize should have gone to the person who decided to put DVD players in the back seat of the family automobile. Children wearing individual sets of earphones, staring at a mutually-agreed upon movie can not be held responsible for "touching" each other. Traveling to Grandma's house has been miraculously turned into a tranquil outing. Ahhh, peace!
In his defense, Mr. Gore has been preaching about the environment, global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps - all good causes. Am I the only one who thinks Al would be doing us all a greater service if he began to concentrate his efforts on the number of trees felled for catalog production?

The 1943 Sears News Graphic wrote that the Sears catalog, "serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living." Thus it would seem that the pairing of Christmas shopping and catalogs is nothing new. They go together like hot chocolate and marshmellows, like velvet dresses and satin bows. But I have to ask haven't merchants gone overboard? Wouldn't it be nice, especially at this time of year, if families could return to the days of yore when one Wish Book could encompass everyone's dreams?
Merry Me

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