I know Santa Claus, which I know sounds like a tall tale …
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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 anyway. 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 this fellow was not Santa and I did not feel betrayed by this. I did not know why he claimed to be Santa. 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 who wore 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 despite the absence of any evidence of 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 would receive presents and how many; beyond that, I thought the only other thing one needed to be a grown-up was a wallet. No problem there, as I had a wallet, so my journey to adulthood was halfway done by age eight, as far as I could tell. It was a sky-blue but plain 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? I guess that adult life has many surprises, one of them being that it can be boring for long stretches, and that you’re right about a lot of things already. We’ll talk with him again later.
Thus, my desires for Christmas were always selfish when I was younger. I wanted “stuff” for Christmas, but really I had the most fun lost in my dreams about the life I could be in … if only I could get the things I wanted from the many catalogs we received in the mail. I lacked imagination otherwise. The catalogs served as my random access dreams. Rarely did I get what I wanted, or what I had convinced myself that I wanted from those pages.
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 all of them in the ’70s, as per our rights as members of American society, but I knew my way around those catalogs like a medieval scholar lost in the study of a saint’s life.
The holiday catalogs—Sears called its Christmas catalog 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 because they somehow smelled “less new.” I would search them for any new tell-tale creases left in the upper corners of the pages by my parents. I never found new creases—never!—in the toy pages, even though these hose were the most important pages!
Some of the books were so thick and complex to negotiate that they had color bars printed along the side of the books 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 a desire for 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 in a search for the toy pages (I ignored 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 is available right now for $49 on eBay. If my parents had held on to every copy of each store catalog we received every Christmas, well, I would have had different parents than the ones who had me, for one thing. Those epic, cuboid-shaped retail books were usually gone from our home shortly after we had passed the “order by” date.
My desires went through phases, from action dolls to Matchbox cars to magic kits to a brief fling with fully functional model trains, to video games. That’s a pretty good summary of life in the 1970s and 1980s, with magic kits thrown in for personalization.
The most “useful” action doll on the market was “Stretch Armstrong,” which was the one doll that lived up to its name and moved just like the cartoon character did. It stretched, thus, it was “realistic” in the most literal terms. A friend had one of these. The least useful was the “bionic man” Steve Austin doll, which was easily broken, which was ironically like Steve Austin before he was bionic, yet it thoroughly indestructible. His bionic eye was not a telescope but instead a simple hole drilled through his plastic head with a glass tube inserted. The tube became cloudy with dust days after one removed the toy from its box. Thus, it was “real” as opposed to “realistic.” And that of course was the doll that 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 I was in charge of the project of assembling one, I would somehow have sections of highway unfinished and unfinish-able as well as unmatched leftover pieces of track. Remember: A simple oval. Later in life, I wrote instruction manuals. If you have one that I wrote, you’re welcome. A simple oval.
Oh! But I desired a multiple-lane highway of a Matchbox track, with a complex of exit ramps and traffic circles. Some of the kits even came with stop signs, because if you build it there will be traffic. I aspired to be the Robert Moses of my bedroom. Look at that 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 merge lanes and underpass, has me envious all over again. I want it, even though it is now 2022 and I am 54. “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 it fell 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 if I ever visited his house 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. (Spoiler alert!)
The lesson for me in kit after kit, for year after year (my parents were patient people, and my mom still is) was an easy one to learn that I nonetheless rejected again and again: Magic is only possible through a scheme or a cheat or the act of hiding the fact that you, the performer, have cut corners away from the eyes of your adoring public. This seemed like more nonsense to me from grown-ups about life, and thanks to my belief in my own skeptical view of everything except my own skeptical view, I distrusted anything grown-ups told me. Anything? Yeah, everything.
As a result, I would lose interest in each magic kit within weeks or months, but, man, I wanted a new kit every single birthday and/or Christmas. And a cape. None of the kits had a cape, which was a disappointment, even though the kid on the box cover often had a cape and top hat. Some of the boxes had a blank statement of fact printed on them: “Cape and hat not included.”
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. With a capital M.
I wanted to be astonished, too.
I believed that such magic existed. And every Christmas morning, I believed that it would arrive in a cheap cardboard box of tricks with easy-to-lose balls and cups. (Dear owners of the house at 4 Sheraton Drive: I know it’s been more than thirty-five years since I lived there, but you probably have not found every plastic ball or black magic wand with a white tip.)
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, which we did not buy, I told myself. Maybe it will be included in next year’s magic box. This is perhaps the closest I have ever come in life to a form of faith.
Another memo to my eight-year-old me: Ah, well. Life’s magic does exist. It truly does, and your incipient faith was not a mistake. It was merely limited to cardboard department store boxes.
Life’s magic astonishes its performer, and will indeed take you for as much of a ride as it will your audience, so you were right in a way, young me. Life’s magic is not “magical,” and it does not often include stardust and applause, which sounds boring, but it is deeper. 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 is real if not realistic. We always did. He’s a few doors down the street, always almost here.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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Well written (of course) and a great look back on your childhood memories, bringing them to life once again.