Before the Internet and cell phones, back in the dark ages when I was a kid and “Add to Cart” meant actually picking an item off a shelf and putting it in a cart, we anticipated Christmas with the usual meaningful delights like family gatherings and candlelit Christmas Eve services; but also–and perhaps most notable for a kid–with the arrival of the Christmas toy catalogue. There were three ways I knew I wanted a toy growing up–spotting it in a commercial wedged between Care Bears and Smurfs during the Saturday morning cartoon lineup, noticing it at the mall’s KB Toys after a stop to Merry Go Round for a new stack of neon rubber bracelets, or seeing it displayed in the glossy pages of the fat catalogues that arrived to our mailbox during the holidays. The JCPenney Big Book was my favorite–the clothing and toy categories separated by several pages of thin, matte, yellow paper, the “middle section” that included an index, size guides, credit card applications, order forms and toll-free numbers. There were three ways to order–by phone (operators on stand-by “every day, 24 hours a day!”), in person at the JCPenney Catalogue Department in every store, or by mail in which you would write a check and slip it into an envelope along with the torn out yellow order form with a detailed list of the items you wanted. We practically drove a horse and buggy.
This is my “I used to walk three miles to school–barefoot in the snow” proclamation to my kids along with rotary phones, cassette tapes and our exciting car entertainment “device”–a handheld water game where you push a button to steer a floating ring onto a peg to reach “the next level” of the game.
But catalogues at Christmas? It was a special tradition–a holiday ritual that slowed us down and pulled us into a world of childhood holiday magic in a way that feels so different from today’s scroll-through-a-screen-of-infinite-choices-to-see-cool-stuff method. That hour spent stretched out on the floor (purple shag carpet to be specific), circling the things we wanted in the JCPenney Big Book with a marker–I’ll take the polyester Garfield sweater, one Cabbage Patch Preemie and a Holly Hobbie 40-piece stove set, please–it was intoxicating, not to mention it kept us from fighting with each other for sixty whole minutes. And it wasn’t greed intoxication–we knew damn well we weren’t receiving everything we circled, and we were totally fine with it. The simple act of circling something was satisfying more in a way that allowed us to make independent choices–even if they were for things we’d never actually receive–and identify ourselves by the things we liked. That marked-up catalogue when we were finished circling was a diary of sorts–a declaration of who we were, and mine was telling. There were more red circles in the actual baby section than in the toys because I dreamed of babies–real ones–more than anything else; and at 8 years old, I already had my baby’s nursery bedding, stroller and car seat selected even though twenty years later, they’d all be recalled for safety and it would be decided that mauve and country blue isn’t as cool a combination as we had once thought.
Toy catalogues are hard to come by now–which, I’m sure has saved a lot of trees and reduced our paper waste, so that’s great. But I’m not the only one looking to recreate my childhood tradition. Last year, Carrie Melago wrote in a Washington Post article, “Finding a toy catalogue is a decidedly first-world problem…but as a mom trying to prevent my children from living a life dominated by screens, my inability to get a low-tech, no-frills, paper copy is frustrating.”
I’ve managed, for the past three years, to get my hands on real Christmas toy catalogues–Target, Amazon, Crate & Kids (and now Ulta, Athleta and Pottery Barn Teen for Lainey) to create an annual ritual of “Circle Book Night” which has become a very anticipated event for my kids and, yes, me too because quiet, calm focus!
This year, I took it a step further and found an old JCPenney Big Book on eBay to show my kids what my Circle Book rituals looked like. Lainey passed on the hand knit pastels even with that amazing drawstring waist.
Dash and Nella, however, recognized the beauty in “antique toys” and wanted everything on this page. I love the powerful description for Fisher Price Toys: “Super Fun.”
As for our Circle Book night this year, my kids loved it just like I once loved it–more for identifying what they like on paper than expecting to receive. This year, Circle Book Night was accompanied by The Polar Express, three mugs of hot cocoa and sleeping bags stretched out on the floor.
Official Circle Book Markers.
Dash circles every. single. thing.
Nella’s a little more choosey, scanning each page carefully and narrowing down her circles to things that truly define her–Barbies and babies. She points out toys that define her friends as well, “I think Alex wants that.” She’s usually right. When she’s finished circling, she clutches her catalogue, proud of her choices. She fell asleep this year gripping her Circle Book.
The circle books are saved in the keepsake bin now for Christmases years from now when they’ll look back and laugh at the things they loved–the first age of drones, the Mini Brands surprise balls with tiny grocery items that served no purpose other than ripping open the package to see what theirs held, anything with “that Ryan kid from YouTube” on the box. Hopefully there’s still real toy stores then. And book stores. And years of memories with these kinds of traditions that delighted them.