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Department store Christmas catalogs were once seasonal signifiers

These past few weeks I have been thinking more and more about the signifiers of the Christmas season. However, because of the pandemic those signifiers or preparations that we normally do (e.g. the Advent church services, the decorating at the museum, the Sleighbell Parade, the running all over town to purchase gifts) aren’t as prevalent this year.


While not having them doesn’t make the actual holiday any less meaningful, these signifiers add a countdown (if you will) to all the proceedings that happen at this time of year so that when Christmas does finally get here, it feels like something has been accomplished…as if you have earned it.


With this in mind, perhaps the biggest signifier of the holiday season when I was a child was the arrival of the highly coveted department store Christmas catalog which was usually a 550-page tome that showcased thousands upon thousands of items that were sold by big department stores such as: J.C. Penney, Montgomery Wards and Sears.


These catalogs (which would be filled with a lot of the same products) would normally come in the mail around late summer or early fall giving us all the first inkling of the holiday season. In my own household, the catalog would normally be looked at by my three older siblings first and then somehow find its way into the hands of myself and my twin sister who would look at it together and then individually afterward.


Upon our thumbing through the first annual catalog of the season that arrived we would begin at page one and leaf through a few pages until we would realize (once again) that the first 300 or so pages were filled with clothing and household appliances. As we were more interested in toys, we would skipthrough a thick stack of pages to begin pouring over and listing all of the toys we would like to have.


As I was big into “Masters of the Universe”, more commonly referred to as “He-Man”, I would analyze and while dreaming of receiving all of the below toys pictured for Christmas. While I didn’t receive all of them, I did get quite a few of them for the Christmas seasons of 1984 and 1985 including that awesome Castle Grayskull. When I see a page like this today, I still can’t help but analyze all of the action figures and get pretty excited over them. NOTE: The accompanying pages of the catalogs are from the 1985 Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs.



The same goes for “G.I. Joe” which I adored for many years. There were so many toys that gosh…I just wanted them all. Who wouldn’t want to play with a big Aircraft carrier like this?


I didn’t have too many “Transformers” when I was a kid although I watched the animated show pretty religiously. However, when I look at these toys today my first reaction is “I want those…now”. The same goes for “Go-Bots” aka the underrated “Transformers”.

And “Care Bears”…those were so cool and are still cool.

SIDENOTE: Typing this up, I am reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry dates a woman who has a classic toy collection leaving him (and later George and Elaine) more interested in the toys than anything else. That would probably be me.


Regardless, another thing that was included on my Christmas list back then was a new Walkman. Even though I haven’t listened to a cassette tape in decades, I still want this.

And look at those TVs! For some people those old TVs make great stands for their current television sets.

Looking at these things now, it makes me nostalgic for how simple things used to be and how patient we would have to be. While today it is more convenient to look at our various computer devices, click what we want to buy and wait a day or two before it magically appears on our doorstop, back then patience was still a virtue.


While waiting was (and is) a hard thing to do…it’s worth noting that if we have a little more patience in our world today we will eventually be back on track to returning to our "normal" lives with most of those holiday signifiers back in place for next Christmas. And even though most of those department stores (and their catalogs) are long gone, I still hold dear the memories of flipping through those thin catalog pages and dreaming about what I wanted for Christmas.


Happy Holidays!

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