By now, most of us are wrapping up our Christmas shopping, both literally and figuratively. There are always those last-minute purchases to get, not to mention stocking stuffers and maybe a few random doodads for ourselves.
I do the majority of my holiday shopping online, mostly because of the convenience and the avoidance of large crowds. It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that a couple of hours close to the madding crowd, clashing shopping carts and constant humming of machinery and voices leaves me in something similar to a walking coma.
Yes, I included a reference to “Far From the Madding Crowd” in that paragraph. It’s a nod to Thomas Hardy, the author who inspired the name of this column. Merry Christmas, Tom.
That’s merely a leftover from my head bashing from three years ago. That’s a minor inconvenience. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a symptom of encroaching old age.
On the other hand, I like to think of online shopping as being the next generation of humongous Christmas catalogues that used to arrive in the mail. Sears, Montgomery Ward and Penney’s are the ones which spring to the mind of this Baby Boomer, but there were others.
Companies began phasing out their catalogues in the 1990s, if not a bit sooner. I guess they thought that everybody lived within driving distance of a shopping mall, and that people would rather just drive to a store to see the merchandise for themselves.
Still, there was something magical about the old paper Christmas catalogues, most of them hefty enough to serve as impromptu booster seats for little kids. One of my earliest and haziest memories is sitting on a Sears Roebuck volume when I first graduated from a high chair to a kitchen chair in the late ‘50s.
Even better than their child-boosting powers was their ability to kindle the imagination of anyone who flipped through the pages. Today’s websites supply all the tinsel and blinking fairy lights that a holiday shopper could want, but in the Catalogue Age this was all done using colored ink and shoppers’ brain cells.
The artwork was usually very high quality and absolutely realistic. You could look at the cover, identify the lights on an evergreen tree and know that you were looking at a Christmas catalogue. And there was usually a small girl who looked somewhat like me sitting beside the tree and playing with her dog.
Gross materialism became something of a way of life for Americans along the way. There have always been those cranky social commentators who seem bent on spoiling the party for everyone else. To them, Christmas television ads and programs, not to mention those awesome wish books, were the root of all the evils plaguing America.
I beg to differ. They were great educational tools disguised as capitalist propaganda.
Those books contained a dizzying amount of information about everything from men’s work boots to kitchen curtains to Barbie dolls. As a little girl in the ‘60s, Barbie dolls were much more interesting than illustrated tutorials about measuring the lengths of curtains correctly, but kids will read nearly anything that catches their eyes. And that information was squirreled away for future grownup use.
Times were changing, though. Retailers started trying out all kinds of gimmicks to set themselves apart in a very competitive business.
One of the odder strategies was developed by the David Weis chain. The company distributed its catalogue, you found what you wanted in it, drove to the store and maybe looked around on the showroom floor for a while, stood in line forever and requested your merchandise at a sales counter in the back of the store.
While this strategy cut down on shoplifting, it was also a huge pain in the hinderparts. David Weis stores, never very numerous, went out of business in the early 1990s. It was a trend too bizarre to last long.
Of course, catalogue shopping was a nice little novelty. For the most part, if you were a child who earned an allowance and saved nickels and dimes all year, you were pretty well set for a Christmas-shopping blowout in your hometown. A Saturday afternoon in downtown New Bethlehem would net you all the ladies’s gloves, handkerchieves and work socks you needed for gift-giving, with an odd one-dollar bill and a handful of coins left over for a random candy bar.
Shopping on Amazon is something like that, but without the slush on the sidewalk, Christmas music salting the air and tinsel in every store window. You can find nearly any material thing your heart desires on Amazon, but it just isn’t the same.
Maybe we could recapture some of that old-time Christmas atmosphere if we all took our smartphones with us and sat on a bench or at a picnic table in the park on a snowy day. A few Thermos bottles of hot cocoa would complete the picture.
“Merry Christmas, Ralphie.”
“Same to you, Mrs. Grinchford. Did you see that toboggans are on sale over on Overstock.com?”
“Why, no. And my grandchildren were just talking about one of those last weekend.”
“Care for some of my hot chocolate?”
“Why, yes I would. We can listen to ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ on my iPhone while we drink it.”
It might work. The world is a strange and magical place these days.