Today is Halloween. Some pumpkins remain in shop windows, but most of the small shops have already decked their halls with snowscapes and bright packages. It’s clear that in our part of the world, the ramp-up to Christmas has begun. Whereas the day after Thanksgiving once signalled the first tentative steps toward Christmas, full Christmas countdown appears to have begun in earnest here before we have even fallen back and changed our clocks.
It’s not as though it used to sneak up on me in the past; my memory is that I was in unlovely and sleep-deprived agitation for much of the last two weeks before Christmas, once the classroom windows had been decorated, Christmas cards had begun to be displayed on the kitchen counter, and dog-eared pages from the Spiegel catalog given the critical attention my brother and I thought they deserved. As I consider Christmas in those days, we enjoyed two holiday seasons: the catalog season and the days before Christmas when we were finally released from school.
I’m guessing the catalog arrived just before Thanksgiving, although I wonder now that it came through the mail at all, given that the Holiday edition must have weighed five pounds. There were other equally weighty catalogs, of course, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. There was nothing wrong with those, but our mother actually bought clothing from Spiegel, and so we hoped she might be more likely to follow up on our detailed assessment of each exhaustively researched toy. Our local hardware store, too, mailed us a full color circular featuring bikes, sports equipment, Radio Flyer wagons, and pump action faux Winchester BB guns, the only note of frivolity from a store that sold lumber and plumbing supplies.
We looked through them all, quickly ignoring the slick mailers offering sliced hams or flavored cheeses, and equally expeditiously thumbing through the exotic and prohibitively expensive toys from FAO Schwartz, admiring the authenticity of Swiss made clockwork robots and gigantic stuffed animals, but recognizing that these were not intended for kids such as we were.
TV commercials left us cold. They were poorly filmed, as if kids would not notice lumpy direction and repetitive, mindless narration, and they presented toys no one wanted. We knew quality when we saw it – the Fanner 50 cap pistol from Mattel with its impala striped grip and long barrel, the Roy Rogers double holster set, and the DeLuxe Service Station with a collection of cars, gas pumps, a car wash, an elevator to transport cars to the parking lot on the roof, and two bays with lifts for full service.
I don’t remember parcels arriving from Spiegel in Chicago; most shopping probably took place at the local drug and book store or at the variety store in the larger town near ours. We never owned most of the toys we found in those catalogs. My brother never had the authentic medieval castle with drawbridge and turrets; we never had to figure out how to use the smoke pellets that came with the Lionel train set. It didn’t matter a bit. The fun was in exercising our considered judgment, toy by toy. I remember literally dreaming about wearing full cowboy regalia, boots and spurs, and saddling up a pinto pony to ride off to adventure. I really didn’t expect to find the pony or the gear under the tree, but for considerable stretches of time, imagining was more than good enough.
My own kids missed out on Holiday catalogs. My eldest spent hours hunkered down in well appointed toy shops, developing a discerning eye for toys of quality; the younger two raced up and down the aisles of Toys R Us, pulling the pink Barbie convertible or the sleek pedal powered Cadillac from their parking places, backing and filling, until we moved on to Legos, or action figures, or electronic games. By the time the Toys R Us catalog arrived, the kids were familiar with the merchandise. They had seen the toys as they were, smaller and less magical. Their lists sent to Santa rarely included the over-advertised and now familiar big-box offerings. I’m pretty sure my daughter asked for a pony for a startling number of years in succession, probably not completely expecting its arrival but savoring the possibility that one Christmas might smell of pony rather than of pine. She may be hoping still.
Most folks bemoan the early arrival of holiday hoopla, and they are not wrong to point out the relentless commercialization of Christmas; they are correct in recognizing the grim spectacle of Black Friday mayhem turning the Thanksgiving weekend into gladiatorial combat. “Who needs six weeks of chipmunks gargling holiday classics on radio and in every shopping destination?” they cry. They’re not wrong about that either.
On the other hand, we need some time to dream and imagine, some time to write long letters to friends we haven’t seen in a year, some time to bake, decorate, and distribute cookies we only see at Christmas. My brother’s family lives in Connecticut; my sister lives in North Carolina. I could have Amazon send their gifts directly to them, but, with enough time, I can wrap their presents, write goofy greetings on each gift, push them into thick boxes, and get them out in the mail in time to find a place under a tree.
My plan these days is to have my shopping done, for the most part, by Thanksgiving. I’ve already hidden two gifts in the hall closet and expect a few more to land in the next week. I am wrapping challenged and need time to start over when I tape unnoticed clumps of dog fur in the center of an otherwise reasonably well wrapped package. I need time to round up newspapers with which to protect gifts in transit, and I need time to uncover and display the decorations my kids made year after year until they became distracted by their emerging lives.
All the same, Halloween is too early. We have the somber shifting of the seasons and the necessary summoning of grace in order to be truly thankful for all that we have and all that we love.
I’ll just pile the catalogs on the kitchen table for now and give my time to standing outdoors as another lovely autumn moves by.