I have a vivid memory of sitting on the porch steps of our home at 434 Bellaire Drive in Waco, Texas–I must have been five years old–and the postman placed a heavy book in my hands that was wrapped in a brown wrapper. Even though I couldn’t read yet, I recognized the name on the wrapper: Sears. I tore the wrapper off and began my love affair with the Christmas Wishbook.
Sears wasn’t the only wishbook we received. In fact, Montgomery Ward actually coined the term before Sears, and J.C. Penney followed later. And every September we received thick paper catalogs from all three retailers, because my mother ordered items from them. Usually, they weren’t sexy things–clothes, drapes, coats, etc.–but the Christmas catalogs were different, because they were filled with happy children playing with page after glossy page of every toy advertised on television and even those that weren’t. In short, it was toy porn.
I must have sat on the porch for hours turning page after page and finding more items by the designer names that I were familiar with at the time: Fisher Price, Mattel, Hasbro, Playskool, etc. I would pore over the pages to make my Christmas wish list for Santa Claus, and I can still remember some of my thoughts as clear as a winter night even to this day.
If I ask for a snow cone machine, I can start my own business and sell snow cones to the neighborhood kids to earn money to buy a car.
If I ask for the Aquaman doll, I’ll need Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, too. After all, I can’t just have one of the Super Friends.
If I ask for a Batman costume, I could fight crime in the neighborhood.
In the end, I usually made do with whatever Santa brought me and my relatives gave me.
As I grew older and learned to write, I began compiling elaborate Christmas lists with comparative columns.
“What does this mean?” Aunt Barbara asked, pointing at the third row.
“It’s the row for the Ghost Gun,” I said. “If you look at the headings of the columns, you’ll see that I’ve listed the advertised prices for all of the major retailers, including page numbers in the catalogs. The red circle indicates the best price, which, in this instance, is K-Mart, but if K-Mart is sold out, you can still find it in the Montgomery Ward’s catalog for just a dollar more.”
My aunt stared at me a moment. “What if I make this easy on both of us and just fetch a ten dollar bill from my purse?”
Eventually, relatives would call my mother each week for my latest update after checking the weekly circulars in the newspaper.
“Nope, Sears is out,” my mother said. “This week J.C. Penney is the way to go for the Fisher Price Little People Castle.”
When I became a teenager, I quit consulting the Christmas wishbooks. Relatives surprised me with British Sterling cologne, Rubik’s Cube, and the newest Pat Benatar album.
By the time I moved away for college, gift cards became the Christmas currency. Then I moved to Atlanta, and my mother called me to get my fax number to send her the family’s Christmas lists. “Do I need to include a cover page?” A year or two later, she began e-mailing me the Christmas lists.
Once online shopping had put most of the catalog companies out of business, my Christmas list returned, albeit as a Microsoft Word document. I’d paste an image of the item, along with a description, and a hyperlink to the retailer with the lowest price. My mother loved it. “I just click with the mouse, give them my credit card number, and then it arrives as the house a few days later.”
A few years ago, I decided at the last minute to buy a particular CD for a friend. I had assumed that I could run out somewhere local and buy the CD, only to discover that all the mom-and-pop CD stores had gone out of business. Much to my chagrin, even the box stores had cut back on the music selection they offered. There was no way to purchase the CD locally; it could only be ordered online. What had the world come to? Buying presents and retail had changed so much since I was a kid, and I was no longer sure that I liked it.
My niece no longer types her Christmas wish list and e-mails it to the rest of the family. Instead, she creates as Wish List on Amazon.com. “Has she updated her Wish List yet?” I asked my sister.
“Not yet,” Vicki said. “She swears that she’s going to do it this weekend.”
I paused. In that moment, I just wanted a simple answer, so that I could buy a present and scratch my niece’s name off my list. I found myself in my Aunt Barbara’s shoes 35 years ago, looking a tow-headed boy with a rudimentary flip chart. “What if I make it easy on all of us and just send her two twenty dollar bills?”