As I’ve grown older, I realize that Christmas is really a time for the young. My fondest memories of the holiday season go back to when I was a kid and the magic that surrounded that time of year. A lot of that magic was inspired by the Sears catalog, which my grandparents got each year. It was sometimes called the “Wish Book” and that was a very appropriate title.
I lived in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania and for me Sears was a storefront where you placed orders and went to pick them up when they came in, no giant store with Kenmore appliances and aisles and aisles of clothes and shoes. The nearest actual Sears store was 35 miles away and for many years I thought that’s all Sears was … an ordering system that involved an intolerable wait until you got what you wanted, no point-of-purchase instant gratification allowed. I loved looking at their Christmas catalogs each year, and my grandfather would encourage me to pick something out that “Santa” might bring, if I passed the requisite “nice” test. I actually thought I was always nice, never naughty, but then again, I wasn’t very self-aware at age 7 or so. Now? Way too self-aware.
My earliest memories of the holiday include the lead-up to the actual day and the wild orgy of present opening on Christmas morning. I have vague memories of enforced churchgoing on Christmas Eve, something I think my mom finally gave up on when I was about 5 or 6, thank god (pun intended). After Thanksgiving, we’d break out the voluminous boxes of Christmas decorations and start to put them up. My mom collected ceramic angels (it was a surefire hit to buy her a new angel as a Christmas present … she was particularly partial to the monthly and seasonal ones) and luckily a jewelry store in town kept them in stock. We’d put up the decorations before we got a tree and I was always in charge of taping the cards we got onto the rungs of our banister on the steps that led upstairs, very early on exerting my artistic muscles. We got a lot of cards, too. Nowadays, five or so is a banner year for me. I still cling to the quaint practice of mailing out cards, and as you can tell from the blog posts surrounding this one, I love creating my own cards, whether they be hand-drawn or photos I take.
In addition to the tree, we had what we called “the platform,” which was basically a train set and a small town on a raised series of pallets. My dad and my older brother really got into this each year, setting up this elaborate small town that took up half of our “parlor” (we had two rooms downstairs, the parlor—really the living room—and a sitting room where we had the TV set). The tree was opposite it (as you can see in the photo below of me sitting in front of it, with the platform to the left). This set-up was magical to me, even though I wasn’t allowed to help set it up or play with it. We had a Lionel train, a ton of Plasticville houses (including a hospital, grocery store, train depot, even a television station!), along with a paper-maché mountain that the train passed through, and tiny utility poles. The streets were made from adding machine paper rolls, and the entire thing was covered in green felt. (I wish I had photos of it all, but we were never a picture-taking family. I regret that now.) I was begrudgingly allowed to place cars and people on the platform, after everything else was done. One Christmas my brother got a new-fangled HO-scale train set, with a beautiful silver and orange streamlined engine, but it threw the whole size ratio with all the buildings and cars out of whack. HO-scale was smaller and everything else we had was bigger. The bloom was off the rose for the platform after that.
When I was really young, we got a real tree, but one year my Uncle Bud got an artificial one, the silver kind with the slow, revolving color wheel. My mom was sold on that minus the color wheel (she was never fond of that modern convenience known as “electricity,” warily unplugging the toaster and electric can opener after each use). She decorated the silver tree with just red-colored ornaments and it was actually a very impressive sight. A few years later we got a “real” fake tree, when they started making more realistic ones that looked like classic evergreens.
I’m not sure when I gave up the ghost on the whole Santa Claus thing. I think maybe around age 7 or 8 when kids in school started spreading the vicious rumor that Santa didn’t exist, that it was just your parents pretending that he was going to bring you presents when all along it was them. One day I thought Santa was real, the next I didn’t and that was that, sadly. It didn’t really impact the magic of Christmas for me, since I was (and still am, to a certain degree) a greedy little bastard. Toys were toys, no matter who gave them to me. And make no mistake: Christmas was all about the toys for me.
My earliest memory of Christmas presents was a pair of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear stuffed toys that I got one year. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, and those two were my favorite TV cartoon characters. I think my mom conspired with both my paternal and maternal grandparents to get me both. We used to go to my dad’s parents on Christmas morning and my mom’s parents at night and our first stop revealed a giant Yogi Bear doll for me. I was thrilled and beside myself when I saw what awaited me that evening … a matching Huckleberry Hound doll. Both were rather tall, at least compared to short little me. Years later I found both of them together in an antique store in Los Feliz, but they were too pricey to bring home.
My Christmas gifts, especially from my maternal grandparents, usually revolved around the aforementioned Sears Christmas Book. The catalog arrived in late summer and I would spend hours pouring over it at my grandparent’s house, trying to decide what one big item I wanted. For a while playsets were big. My brother had an Alamo set, with a tin recreation of the famous building and numerous cowboys, soldiers and horses, along with various cannons. I opted more for fantasy over reality (although I admit to having a D-Day set with hundreds of green plastic soldiers). Two of my favorites were a Flintstones town (complete with Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Dino and Pebbles, plus houses, dinosaurs and cars) and a Disneyland one that came with its own Matterhorn and a small car that raced down its plastic sides, along with small plastic recreations of areas of the park, including Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
The Flintstones Playset by Marx (circa 1962) and the Disneyland set (first offered by Sears in 1959). I had both of these sets. (Flintstones Playset photo by Heritage Auctions)
As I got older, my interests turned to more “adult” kid things … like guns. I was obsessed with the James Bond movies and its TV equivalent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I never got the Bond toy of my dreams, the fully-loaded attache case (a kid down the street from my grandparents had one, though and I desperately wanted to steal it), but I did have the U.N.C.L.E. guns, both the modular Napoleon Solo one and the giant T.H.R.U.S.H. rifle, which was almost too big to play with. One year a REMCO playset called “Horrible Hamilton” was all the rage and I got that, along with a helmet and gun. The theme was giant insects and my mom hated them. They had strings you pulled and they slithered around the floor. The playset came with blue plastic soldiers and futuristic vehicles, too. That fad lasted about a year and was about a decade too late … the giant monster movie craze had its last gasp in the late 1950s.
And one year it was all about Captain Action, an action figure. (“It’s a DOLL,” harrumphed my father, “And he’s too damn old for dolls.” For the record, I was 12.) Captain Action took advantage of the twin merchandising wonders of Batman and G.I. Joe. It was the male equivalent of Barbie and came with numerous accessories, but the trick was they were all character-driven. You could buy costume sets for Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Spider-Man, Captain America … even the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Steve Canyon, and Sgt. Fury (alas, no complete set of the Howling Commandos was offered). The following year Action Boy came along so you could buy all the kid sidekicks, including Superboy, Robin, and Aqualad. I immediately broke my Action Boy figure on Christmas Day by pulling his head off to try and get Superboy’s cape over it, not realizing the plastic cape had a small, imperceptible slit in it. #sad (This website has a complete list of all the Captain Action costume sets, with images.)
Top: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. guns and the Horrible Hamilton playset, complete with cardboard “Hamilton Invaders” cave; Bottom: Captain Action’s original box and all his original costume character sets (far right). Sadly, while I had the Batman costume, I didn’t have the Sears-exclusive “Quick-Change Chamber,” which was a misnomer at best. I’m pretty sure it did nothing. Changing Captain Action’s costumes was tedious and downright embarrassing.
And just like that, I was too old for all the toys. One of the last gifts I got from my grandfather and the Sears catalog was a cassette player, a Sears exclusive that had its own versions of popular albums, edited-down cassettes that had fewer songs making for not complete albums. I had a couple of Beatles tapes and the white clunky plastic player made me feel like the coolest kid in the world, even with a limited repertoire of music to play. My Christmas gifts in my teens ranged from clothes I didn’t want (my mom’s taste was vastly different from my own) and books. Books quickly became my favorite Christmas gift and they are to this day. (They’re also my favorite everyday / anytime gift, but don’t tell anyone.) Movie books and comics collections were my favorites then, and I guess, now. Buy me a book—or take me to a bookstore—and I’m happy as a clam, if one can actually determine a clam’s relative happiness scale.
At this point in my life, Christmas is a collection of fond memories of years past. Whatever your Christmas is, I hope it’s happy and healthy and filled with the things—and people—you love, and maybe an annoying relative or two, one that you’re sure will go home at the end of the day.