Growing up, there were three things that told me Christmas was drawing close: the calendar, the annual appearance of TV holiday specials, and the arrival of the Sears Wish Book.
The latter meant the most as I spent hours that stretched into days staring with lustful eyes at the catalog pages, greedily circling the toys, games, and gadgets I absolutely had to have or else I would just curl up and die. And like any good adult, I blame my parents for this adolescent avarice because they were the ones who first suggested this materialistic ritual as a gift-giving benefit to them and to Santa.
Not wanting to be stuck with a sweater — or, perish the thought, socks and underwear — who was I to disagree?
Then technology ruined all the fun by taking the holiday catalogs out of my hands and onto the Internet.
The giddy, incomparable warmth of turning actual pages has long been replaced with online clicks on "next page." Oh, the joy to be had in that — especially as I copy and paste links in an email to pass along to family members. I can hardly wait to point to a computer and tell my daughter, "Time's running out. Better start Googling for your Christmas gifts from Santa."
So is that the kind of holiday tradition she can look forward to fondly recalling 30 years from now?
Missing in this digital age of holiday shopping is the fun of having stacks of Christmas catalogs piled high on a bed as you painstakingly peruse each one — skipping the unwanted sections like clothes — and getting right to the good stuff: toys, toys, electronics, toys, and toys.
Yes, holiday catalogs still exist — barely, and usually only by request from a department store. An exception would be the Great Big Toys R Us Book, a 79-page mini catalog printed on thin glossy stock paper.
My daughter spent several minutes looking through the Toys R Us book, and even more time paging slowly through an American Girl catalog. (God help me.) And like a good parent, I simply repeated the sins of my parents and told her to circle everything she wanted.
But online is a different matter. Shopping for gifts on the Internet is not really for younger kids. And even the older kids are missing out on much of the fun. On the department store Web sites, for example, there are simply product shots. Missing are the faux smiles from happy model children being paid to pretend to play with toys and gadgets. For me growing up, looking at these photos was half the fun; to seethe with jealousy over the fact that some random kid was playing with the toy I coveted, and also to put myself in the picture and imagine it was me playing with the Star Wars action figures or holding an Atari joystick.
But all things change, I suppose. Just not always for the better.
The Sears Wish Book first appeared in 1933 and almost disappeared entirely 60 years later when Sears did away with its big book catalogs. The Wish Book shrank in size and number of pages, but it made a comeback five years ago with a 188-page catalog, about half the size of the Wish Book I grew up with. And of course Neiman Marcus still has its annual holiday gift guide.
Yet I fear these are in danger of becoming novelties to placate holiday nostalgia rather than to entice hordes of young shoppers. Chalk up the disappearing and soon to be extinct holiday catalog as another example of what we're sacrificing physically for the sake of digital convenience.
So, yes, Virginia, Christmas catalogs are virtually dead. And the Internet killed them, just as it has most things pre-www, including urban legends, the music industry, and kids playing outdoors.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.