I know Santa Claus, which I know sounds like a tall tale …
I do not remember the moment I learned that the many Misters and Missuses Claus that we encountered in person or saw on TV were “not real”; the fact that there was no “a-ha” moment leads me to assume that I never bought the story. Maybe so, maybe not. There is at least one photo of my sister and me in a “portrait with Santa,” and I remember the typical session. I knew, just knew, that the fellow was not Santa, and I did not feel betrayed by this; I knew it was a guy overheating indoors in a snowsuit for reasons related to “things grown-ups do.” It did not make much sense to me, to be a grown-up wearing a snowsuit indoors, but I did not envy adults the many things that they did, said, claimed, acted as if, and always eventually emphatically insisted made sense.
The nonsense things of the grown-up world were of no interest to me. From what I could determine, grown-ups were there to tell cover stories to us kids to keep us in the dark about vitally important things, such as when we were getting presents; beyond that, I thought the only other thing one needed to be a grown-up was a wallet. And I had one of those, so my journey to adulthood was halfway done by age 8, as far as I could tell. It was a blue nylon wallet with a Velcro close. It was also always empty, or had the same few singles in it for years at a time. (“Empty” also describes my current wallet. What would I tell my eight-year-old self? That adult life has many surprises, but we wear cool hats.)
My desires for Christmas were always selfish. I wanted “stuff” for Christmas, but really I had the most fun imagining the life I could be living … if only I could get the things I wanted from the many catalogs we received in the mail. I lacked imagination otherwise. Rarely did I get what I wanted, or what I had convinced myself that I wanted.
I do not know why or how my family received so many (could it truly have been a dozen or so?) giant Christmas catalogs from the various department stores that then dominated the retail landscape; perhaps every suburban family received them in the ’70s, as per our rights as members of American society, but I knew my way around the catalogs like a medieval scholar re-reading a saint’s life.
The holiday catalogs—Sears called its Christmas offering the “Wish Book”—were hundreds of pages long, and at least one of them per year would top 1000 pages. They were printed on thin paper and weighed many pounds apiece, with pages so saturated with color ink that their smell was unmistakable. I could always sniff out whether the magical books had been taken out and consulted during my day away from them at school. I would search them for any new tell-tale creases left behind by my parents in the pages. I never found new creases—never!—in the toy pages. The important pages.
Some of the books were so thick and complex to negotiate that they had color bars along the side so one could quickly find one’s favorite section(s). As I got older, I graduated from coveting model cars and not very movable action dolls to desiring electronics. I did not desire clothes for Christmas, nor did I understand why there were pages devoted to clothes at all—those struck me as a waste of space and ink and my precious time while searching for the toy pages (ignoring the helpful color codes on the side).
There is a nostalgia market for copies of these vintage catalogs, as can be seen by my illustrations. A copy of the 1978 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog was available last year for just under $20 on eBay. If my parents had held on to every copy of each store catalog we received every Christmas, well, I would have different parents than the ones I have. Those epic, cuboid-shaped retail books were usually gone from our home shortly after the “order by” date had passed every year.
My desires went through phases, from action dolls to Matchbox cars to magic kits to a brief fling with fully functioning model trains, to video games.
The most “useful” action doll was “Stretch Armstrong,” which was the one doll that lived up to its name and moved just like the cartoon character. Thus, it was “realistic.” A friend had one of these. The least useful was the “bionic man” Steve Austin doll, which was easily broken but thoroughly indestructible. His bionic eye was not a telescope but instead a simple hole drilled through his head with a glass tube inserted. The tube was cloudy with dust within months of opening the doll’s box. Thus, it was “real” as opposed to “realistic.” And that of course was the doll I owned.
The pages that I really loved in the catalogs sold the model car tracks. Not the model cars or radio-controlled cars. The tracks. (See illustration at the top.) Mind you, any track that I ever actually owned myself was a simple oval, and, whenever the project of assembling one was left to me, I would somehow have sections of highway unfinished and unfinish-able as well as unmatched leftover pieces of track. (Later in life, I wrote instruction manuals. You’re welcome.)
Oh! But I desired a multiple-lane highway of a Matchbox track, a complex of exit ramps and traffic circles. Some of the kits even came with stop signs, and I aspired to be the Robert Moses of my bedroom. Look at this page from a Montgomery Ward catalog, at the top of this post, with its huge illustrations and dense, descriptive copy. The track depicted over there on the bottom right page, with its merging lanes and underpass, has me envious all over again. I want it. “Wish Book,” indeed.
The one time I played with a radio-controlled car on an elaborate track like this was at a friend’s house; he had it set up on his living room floor, which made little to no sense to me, and the moment he handed me a controller, my car flipped off the track, rolled under a couch, and re-emerged for a split-second just before falling off the landing to the hardwood foyer floor below. (This may explain my lifelong hatred of split-level houses.) We looked at each other during that two seconds of loud silence that always precedes the unmistakable sound of irreversible destruction. I do not remember visiting his house ever again.
I wanted the ultimate magic kit, too, and as with anything advertised in the catalogs, the magic kits grew more complex with higher prices. They all included a “magic wand,” which was just a wooden dowel painted black, or, in the more expensive kits, painted black with a white tip, because that equals classy. In all the kits, from simple to pricey, the tricks were easy to follow, both for the performer and, unfortunately, his audience. Most of the tricks in magic kits are the basic shell game and some variations—balls and cups—or they include a set of pre-marked cards or a dummy set of all aces or all jokers.
The lesson for me in kit after kit, for year after year (my parents are patient people) was an easy one that I rejected time after time: Magic is only possible through cheating or hiding the fact you, the performer, are cutting corners. This seemed like more nonsense from grown-ups, like a fake overheating Santa. As a result, I would lose interest in each magic kit within weeks or months, but I wanted a new kit every single Christmas.
For me, most magic kits emphasize the word “trick” and lose that word “magic,” and I think what I always wanted out of a magic kit was to learn a trick that would take its performer for a ride as much as it did the audience. I did not want to learn how to perform the tricks; I wanted to perform magic. I wanted to be astonished, too.
I believed that such magic existed. And every Christmas, I believed that it would arrive in a cheap cardboard box of tricks with easy-to-lose balls and cups. Somehow I was never disappointed; the magic simply wasn’t in this particular box, see? Perhaps it was in the one next to it on the shelf, I told myself. Maybe it will be included in next year’s magic sets.
Memo to my eight-year-old me: Ah, well. Life’s magic does exist. And it astonishes its performer and will take him for as much of a ride as it will his audience. You were right in a way. The magic may in fact be in the next moment or the moment just behind it on the shelf. Or in the memory just created. Because we know Santa Claus. We always did. He’s a few doors down the street, just out of sight and sound right this second.
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This is an edited version of a piece from two years ago.
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