Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'm old enough to remember "wish books."

I'm old enough to remember "Wish Books." Are you?

My friend Molly tweeted a photo this morning of her little guys poring over a Christmas catalog, determining the items they might want to place on their Santa lists. And it took me back.

During the Christmases of the late '60s and early '70s, when I was little, we'd wait for the mail to bring the two periodicals that officially ushered in the holiday season: The JC Penney "Wish Book" and the Sears Christmas catalog. We'd fight to be the first to start paging through the pristine pages; it was always best to circle our items before anyone else had a chance, as ballpoint pens tended to slice through the thin, glossy paper and make whatever was on the other side unreadable.

I remember seeing a Mrs. Beasley doll -- Buffy's doll from the '60s sitcom "Family Affair" -- on the pages of one of the catalogs. I circled it and ended up finding her under the tree on Christmas morning. Later, I circled roller skates and turquoise necklaces; even after I was old enough to know the horrid truth about Santa, I circled stereos, telephones, Earth shoes and "elephant" pants.

I first attended college at the University of Northern Iowa before transferring to Drake. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving of my freshman year and not wanting to go back, for some reason or another; I distinctly remember that as I waited in the living room for my ride to pick me up on that Sunday in 1981, I circled a set of electric rollers in the Wish Book.

My kids, 23 and 20 now, were always good about letting me know what they wanted for Christmas. With Scott, it was easy; he didn't like gifts for which he'd be forced to find a place in his room, so as soon as he was old enough to know what they were, he requested gift cards. Caroline would print pages from clothing-store websites and bring them to me.

There was something missing.

We all talk about how commercial Christmas has become; in fact, we were talking about it back then, too, as Charlie Brown began lamenting it on his Christmas special in the '60s. And to some degree, of course, it is too commercial; stores begin showcasing holiday decorations in October, and Thanksgiving is sometimes almost a footnote to the "real" holiday.

And we all have so much less time, it seems, to simply sit back and enjoy the holiday. In the Christmas seasons of my youth, of course parents worked, but we didn't have youth sports and music lessons and take-home piles from the office to steal our attention every night. We could hunker together on the couch, watch Christmas specials, and feel the season begin to warmly advance upon us.

I guess we take that holiday warmth wherever we can find it now. There are new traditions; commercialism be damned, my daughter and I look forward to shopping at midnight on Black Friday. We meander around for a while, enjoying the sights and sounds, and then we hit Perkins for a middle-of-the-night breakfast before heading home to bed. My son says he may join us this year.

And when the kids are home from college, we still gather around the TV for Charlie Brown, the Grinch, the Wonder Years' Christmas episode and Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (look it up! It's a good one). We talk and we eat and we laugh, and it's clear that the special feelings inherent to the season don't just fall away as we grow older.

But still, I can't help but hope for Wish Book will show up in my mailbox. As the song says, I need a little Christmas -- right this very minute. And there'd be no better way to find it than paging through slippery pages crumpled by a ball-point pen that doesn't have quite enough ink.

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