Because we lived without television and far from town, my siblings and I didn’t consider store displays or TV commercials when deciding what we wanted for Christmas. Instead, our inspiration for letters to Santa Claus came from the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog.
The catalog arrived in mid-November to hosannas of joy. It died a quiet, rumpled death by Christmas Eve. In between, it dominated our holiday season.
Soon after Halloween, fights broke out about whose turn it was to trudge the quarter-mile lane to the mailbox, a chore we usually scrambled to avoid. We each wanted to be the first to touch the catalog’s slick pages, breathe its acrid smell, read its tantalizing descriptions of toys, candy and clothing.
For five weeks, the increasingly bedraggled catalog circulated from hand to hand. Mom reminded us daily, with diminishing holiday spirit, that we couldn’t read it during meals. We condemned the unknown ne’er-do-well who dropped our treasure in the bathtub, rendering several pages unreadable. At night, when we should have been sleeping, we whispered excited comments to one another about the treasures it contained.
Having seven children and little discretionary money, Mom told us Santa had a $10 limit per child. We made lengthy lists, agonizing about whether to eliminate Mr. Potato Head or the Lincoln Logs. We sought one another’s advice and argued the merits of our selections.
Once, Bob tried to convince me I needed a pair of cap guns in a fringed holster, telling me I would be the toughest girl in second grade, but I resisted. Carolyn ended our red-faced yelling before it turned ugly by suggesting Bob would be the cutest boy in fourth grade if he ordered the princess crown on page 16.
Finally we made our decisions and wrote our letters:
I’ve been good. Bob hasn’t. Now the important stuff. I want the dollhouse on page 56. The two-story one, please. I want the plastic family, too, if they don’t cost extra.
If they do, maybe I could still have them and just get less next year.
When we had money from picking fruit or hoeing long rows of sugar beets, we shopped for one another from the catalog. After a few weeks, its sticky pages were marked with mysterious codes known only to their creators.
One year, Bob tormented Carolyn and me by putting our initials next to several items in the catalog, leading us to think (A) those were the things he might buy for us, and (B) he wasn’t very bright.
A week later, we noticed he had circled in red crayon a half-pound box of cherry chocolates for me and some bright plastic beads for Carolyn. I daydreamed at school about biting into a chocolate, feeling the ooze of the thick juice, the crunch of the cherry.
Bob whooped with laughter on Christmas morning as we ripped open our presents from him, only to discover he had chosen nothing he had marked in the catalog. Instead, Carolyn received a sampler set of 25 tiny tubes, each filled with a different perfume, and I had a winter hat I could stick my ponytail through — completely inedible.
When I was 12, we moved to town with its multiple shopping opportunities: Forseys Five and Dime, J.C. Penney and Woolworths. The Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog lost its importance; the $10 limit drifted away.
It seemed to me that with their disappearance, much of the anticipation of the Christmas season vanished, as well.
I found I missed the colorful catalog, the snowballing excitement that arrived with it and the whispered conversations that flowed between our beds.