Christmas by the book

In the days when the Christmas catalog was king, boys and girls would spend hours drooling over the vast possibilities of Yuletide consumerism.

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By CHRIS STACH

Christmas, for a bunch of us kids in my near west suburb, used to begin way, way before December. Before November. And even before October.

Yeah, September was that magic month, just after school started up again. It was then that the Christmas toy catalogs for Sears and Wards were delivered by mail to our houses.

I used to pity the poor mailmen, with their aching arms and breaking backs. Even though they had those

mail bag strollersâ€"remember those?â€"that they used to push, they still had to bring those heavy catalogs to the house. That's probably why I never got a job with the post office.

It seemed to be the unwritten, but much argued, rule that whoever saw or touched the Christmas toy catalog first, got "first dibs" on pawing through it. After that, second dibs and third dibs got their respective turns.

Anyway, we'd savagely tear off the brown paper wrappers and lovingly drink in the color-dazzling glories of those front covers. Our breathing would quicken to gasps, and our mouths would drool, just knowing that there were pages and pages and pages of the latest, exciting toys at our trembling fingertips. And some of them could be ours, almost just by wishing for them.

Usually, though, we'd have to plow first through a couple hundred pages or so of uninteresting junk, the kind of boring stuff only grownups would go giddy overâ€"like winter coats, fondue pots, French clocks, watches, shoes, electric shavers, Craftsman tools and sterling silverware.

We'd rarely stop to look at any of that stuff, except for maybe some of the girls, who'd linger thoughtfully over the two dozen wasted pages of Christmas and winter fashions.

Toys were us

But most of us went straight over to the toy section, passing by the smoking pipe racks, the waffle racks, the waffle irons, and the "efficient two-slice toasters."

Well, maybe we would stop for awhile to drool over the pages of boxed chocolates, so near to us that we could almost taste them. It's a wonder we didn't eat the pages.

The tins of mixed nuts we might glance at. We absolutely shunned the fruitcake pages. The tins of cookies we hesitated over, tasted in our minds, then dismissed.

OK then, finally we'd get to the toy section, after enduring 400 pages of this other stuff. Now came the time to get serious, sharpen our No. 2 pencils, and get a lot of blank paper ready. We would write clearly and legibly, using our best penmanship with an intensity that was usually missing when we did our homework. The world, except for the toy world, ceased to exist for us.

We knew what we wanted, and were taking no chances. Sometimes we added to our wish lists the names of the catalogs, with page numbers, and even the prices, to leave absolutely no doubt as to what we wanted, where it could be gotten or how much it cost.

Some of us kids even rated the toys, according to which we wanted the most, by numbering from one to, well, infinity. OK then, infinity plus one. Like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, "Be Prepared" was our motto.

Letting our fingers do the walking, we found the sports equipment with no problem. Then came the sleds, the skates, skis and stuffed animals. Next came the blocks, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, activity easels and genuine-looking rotary dial telephones that we could use to talk to each other. From room to room, anyway. Or if they didn't work, we could just shout at the top of our lungs, as usual.

Hobby horses were popular, but only with the little kids, the shrimps and the small fry. You don't see many of these around today. The horses, I mean. These were like small merry-go-round horses on springs that did nothing but bounce around a lot until the kids got dizzy or seasick. Maybe that should be "horse sick."

Play cash registers loaded with play money were a lot of fun. But, of course, we preferred the real thing. Then came several baby toys that we older kids wouldn't dare be seen touching, unless we were sure that no one was watching.

For some reason, the catalog makers put the child-size typewriters among the toys. I suppose they thought it encouraged good writing habits. Come to think if it, I had one of these, and look at me now.

The more common toys were spread across the pages, too. You know the kind I mean. Like pogo sticks, bowling sets, pool tables, pinball machines, Ouija boards and regular board games. There were no computer games back then. In fact, if you'd asked us what a personal computer was, we probably would have stared blankly at you, with the same sort of look kids give today when you say you had a "record player."

Board games could be a lot of fun, unless you were the only one playing them. The toy catalogs had a slew of them, with names like Concentration, Clue, Monopoly, Life, Scrabble and Perquackey, which was a timed word game. I never played it. The game's name sounded too silly, like it had something to do with ducks.

Role-playing games

Girls would play just about any board game invented, but we boys couldn't do that. What boy would be caught dead playing Barbie, Queen of the Prom Gameâ€"A Fun Game with Real Life Appeal for Girls?

My sister, Kathy, got this game, and to win, I think she had to be the first to save up Barbie Play Money to pay for a prom dress card and become club president and get a boyfriend card. Ugh.

A couple of years later, the infamous Mystery Date game came out, where girls from 8 to 14 would "collect [a] combination of cards to complete date-time outfits [and the] lucky one [would] get to open [the ]door and meet her mystery date [at a] dance, skiing, bowling or beach party."

As I also recall, the television commercial jingle was full of "oohs" and "ahhs." When it came on, we boys would shove our fingers into our ears and hum. Loudly.

Somewhere in the toy pages there was sure to be wood-burning project sets, which, our parents hoped, wouldn't be used to burn down our houses. Also, there were small tool workbenches, which may have given Tim Allen his early training for his television show, Home Improvement.

We could even make an "8 room, 2-story house for Purple Martin birds." None of us could tell a Purple Martin from a Ruby-Crusted Throat Sucker. Whether those birds, or any others, would've wanted to live in one of these birdhouses was something we never found out, nor did we care to.

Near the end of the toy section were the dolls. All of us red-blooded American boys passed these right by, and darn quickly, too. The girls hit this section like they were hitting a brick wall. They could spend hours there.

Baby dolls were well-represented, with names like Susie Sunshine, Angel Baby, Dy Dee Darlin', Miss Peep, Betsy Wetsy, Baby Butterball (that sounds like a turkey), Baby Drowsy and other nauseating junk. The fashion dolls for older girls came next, with Barbie making great inroads into doll culture.

Old doll favorites were still for sale, too, like Raggedy Ann and Andy and Bozo the Clown. I guess Bozo would be almost tolerable for a small boy to own.

And then there were the doll houses. These were metalâ€"thin tin, I thinkâ€"having mostly rolled edges. An exposed bit here or there could always slit a finger or tear your clothes. These were delivered unassembled, and dad had the unenviable job of fitting slot A into slot Z, while mom stood by with bandages.

Truly, I never gave much thought to doll houses, and never played with them. Well, almost never. My sisters had these two-story metal ones that had staircases in them, so the dolls could, supposedly, go up and down between the first and second floors.

My fun here was limited to taking small dolls and plastic furniture and dropping them down the stairs onto the ground floor, where they rolled out and away from the doll house. Whoever, or whatever, rolled farthest was the winner. Then came the playoffs, where the winner for the day might be a plastic couch over a tiny, rubberish baby. My sisters didn't much like me doing this, which gave an added zest to the game.

Then there were the toys girls would never touch, which was a the exclusive province of boys. One of these was a two-story high service station made of the same blood-letting materials as the doll houses.

These gas stations could dispense real water from the gas pumps, and we could have real, operating plastic grease racks. Man, we were in heaven. And if we removed the gas pumps, we could squirt the girls with the water. I still have some of my service station's plastic dolls, er, I mean molded figures.

The wait begins

After the serious business of closely examining the toy section was over, we'd turn to the back of the book to see the back cover. Sears almost always featured some household appliances, like a washer-dryer comboâ€"just what every woman was wishing for at Christmas. Wards went the entertainment route, with radios and the like.

Finally, having done a thorough analysis of the catalogs, we'd submit our Christmas toy lists to Santa Claus, our parents, relatives or whomever we though could fill our orders.

Over the next few months we'd update our lists, adding or subtracting items. The latter didn't happen very often. By the week before Christmas, we could do no more. It was all up to fate from that point on. Of course, a few last-minute hints never hurt, either.

Would we get the toys we asked for? Or would we have to endure the crushing, sad disappointment of not getting at least that one, special toy we absolutely longed for? Time would tell. Soon it would all be over.

I'm sure we all remember that one, special present we wanted and got. Sometimes there's a story that goes with it. Such as the time in 1963 when I saw something in the catalog that I wantedâ€"a Kenner Give-A-Show Projector. And I wanted it so much that it hurt.

This was like a newfangled version of an antique metal toy magic lantern, but less dangerous. I put on the pressure, and I was good as gold to earn it. Well, maybe as good as silver.

That Christmas Eve I fell asleep and, in what seemed like no time, I awoke. The house was silent and dark. I stumbled downstairs and turned on the warm, joyous colored lights on our Christmas tree.

Peering between the window blinds, I saw that the sun wasn't up yet. Well, it soon would be. So I opened a few presents, and there it was! The Kenner Give-A-Show Projector, with a small package of D-size batteries attached.

Immediately, I set it up, pulling the paper filmstrips through and shining the cartoon images on the dark walls of the kitchen. While in there, I turned the light on and got one of the great surprises of my life.

It was only 1:30 a.m.! I still think this was some kind of record. Was I the first kid to ever get up this early on Christmas? Maybe so.

But I wasn't willing to wait for hours and hours until my siblings and parents woke up. I unplugged the tree lights, took my projector back to bed with me, and shone it on my bedroom ceiling. Then I snapped it off and slept some more, getting up at a decent hourâ€"6:30 in the morning.

So, what did you want and get out of the toy catalogs? I'm sure you remember some of that neat stuff, and probably you wish you still had it, too.

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