Wistfully Wishing for a Christmas Wish Book of Holidays Past

This article first appeared in Booming Encore

Like so many magical stories of childhood, this one begins with a most familiar phrase…

Once upon a time (say about 1950 to 1980 or so), Baby Boomers all over North America rushed to their mailboxes in late August or early September, hoping to find the Sears Christmas Catalog – or simply The Wish Book as it eventually came to be called – waiting for them.

The annual catalog was filled with pages and pages of toys, games, sporting items, scientific instruments, books, bicycles, and bright, shiny wagons guaranteed to thrill youngsters who looked at its pages.

Whenever they had free time, children of all ages would rush to their favorite sitting spots and, with excited eyes, spend hours perusing the big book in hopes of finding the gifts from Santa and family that would make for a perfect Christmas.

The catalogs were so popular that even today siblings in their sixties recall arguing over who would get to read the books first.

Actually, the widely popular Wish Book was just one of a series of catalogs that Sears published, beginning with the initial non-holiday one mailed to potential buyers in 1894.

The first Christmas catalog arrived in homes in 1933. Featured items in that book included the then-popular Miss Pigtails doll, Lionel electric train sets, a Mickey Mouse watch, and even live singing canaries.

The cover of 1933 offered illustrations displaying some of the featured items found in the 87-page catalog. The next year Sears started the tradition of putting warm, colorful Christmas scenes on the cover and a holiday icon was born.

As its popularity soared, the catalog continued to grow, reaching its maximum size of 605 pages in 1968, four years after the last of the Baby Boomers were born.

Interestingly, while almost everyone nostalgically remembers the catalog as filled with nothing but toys, that isn’t true. The initial 1933 book offered 62 pages of gifts for adults and only 25 pages of toys. In 1968, there were 380 pages for adults and 225 devoted to youngsters.

By 1943, the catalogs were being heralded as “a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”

That message proved prophetic. 

Today, producers of Hollywood movies and Broadway shows frequently refer to old catalogs for styles of a specific period, while cultural historians use them to examine life in days long gone.

However, as is the case with so many things of the past, the Christmas Wish Book fell victim to changing times, specifically modern trends in retailing and technology. The company decided to halt producing the large catalogs for Americans in 1993.

Now obviously, youngsters today are just as excited about the holidays as their counterparts of the past. So what do they do? Instead of spreading the big-book catalogs on their laps, they now grab their computers or portable electronic devices to track down toy listings online.

Of course, what technology takes away in one form, it often saves in another.

For example, very few of us still have our favorite Sears catalogs from the past. But in 2006, two catalog preservation enthusiasts came up with the idea of WishbookWeb.com, and since that time have been scanning and posting holiday catalogs online, allowing nostalgic viewers to relive their childhood Christmas dreams.

A word of warning, however. If you are a Baby Boomer who decides to trigger some Christmas memories by visiting that site, beware.

The internets’ Ghosts of Christmas Past are strong and you just might find yourself drawn into the burgeoning world of collecting toys, games, and other items from the 50s to the 80s you once had or always wanted to possess.

For some, it might be returning to that Barbie collection you so recklessly gave away when you moved into your first apartment. For others, it might be classic Matchbox or Hot Wheel cars, colorful Hula hoops, or even original Mr. Potato Head sets (where you would still have to use actual potatoes).

As for me, I was once hooked on Marx playsets. I believed that between Santa, my parents, and my allowance, I had at one time or another possessed every set Marx ever produced. The Blue and the Grey. Roman gladiators. The Wild West. The Alamo. World War II. I had them all.

But in the course of researching this article, I found two obscure ones I never had.

Of course, that discovery left me with a big Christmas problem. How could I get those two sets 50 years later?

I don’t think I have enough time to write Santa, mail my letter to the North Pole, and have the jolly fellow construct and deliver the two sets by Christmas Eve.

So does anyone out there know if Santa has a personal email address or a secret Skype number?

When Duck and Cover Drills Just Didn’t Cover It

Like most Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and early 1950s, I can vividly recall those 13 harrowing days in October of 1962 that came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I remember sitting in front of our family’s black-and-white television and hearing President John Kennedy describe in terrifying detail how the leaders of Communist Russia had installed nuclear missiles in neighboring Cuba and now they were pointed directly at the east coast of America.

I didn’t then, and certainly don’t now, recall all of President Kennedy’s speech. But I knew from his look and what I had previously read and seen on TV the situation was ominous. The president was talking about the possibility of the deaths of millions of Americans.

I don’t think I fully understood death then. What 10-year-old does?

But I was aware that the silly drills we were being subjected to in school were meaningless, if not indeed idiotic. We practiced two types. In one, we marched silently, single file out into the hallway away from the windows, put our arms against the wall in front of us, and placed our head on our arms. In the other, we were ordered to crawl under our wooden desks and remain there until an all-clear was sounded. To me, both were ridiculous. Hadn’t people seen the fiery blast and deadly mushroom cloud of fallout to follow? How were these positions supposed to protect anyone against that?

Obviously, I didn’t want to die, but my biggest concern centered around my mother and father. They worked in a city about 10 miles from my school. I determined I wasn’t going to let the world end and not be with them.

So, I came up with a plan. My 4thgrade teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Robinson. She drove a big Oldsmobile. I had observed that she always put her car keys in her large purse before starting class. She would then put her purse on the floor on the right side of her desk. I knew what I would do. At the initial signal for any attack, I would dash from my chair, grab her keys, bolt to her car, and drive the 10 miles to be with my parents.

Of course, there was a major problem with my plan. I had never driven a car before. But I was convinced I could do it if I had to.

Finally, on Oct. 26th, it was reported that the Soviet Union had backed down. They would remove the missiles. For now, the world was safe. I didn’t have to learn to drive during unimaginable destruction.

Seven years later, I did get my license. And one year later, I found myself in college, learning academic ways to support my growing belief that peace is always better than war. I made a life-long commitment to trying to be a person of peace. Over the years, I’ve come up with many reasons to support that decision. But I’ve never found any better than the two I learned in 1962 – there’s no way a wooden desk can keep you safe from an atomic bomb and a 10-year old is way too young to drive.

The End of the World as We Know It Was Only a Hair’s Breath Away

While almost all of America was filled with dread during those tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if we had known then what we know now we probably would have been even more terrified.

“We came within a hair’s breath of the destruction of the world,” says Janet Lang, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “We look back on the Missile Crisis and it was peacefully resolved. But we didn’t know at the time how it was going to turn out.”

Lang and her husband James Blight, chairman of the International Affairs department, appeared at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to discuss their new book The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Kruschev/Castro in the Cuban Missile CrisisThe authors are also responsible for an interactive website on their project which you can access by clicking here.

Blight agrees with his wife’s alarming assessment. “If you don’t believe in divine intervention, this (piece of history) will really test you. We are fortunate to be here today and having this discussion,” he contends. “It shows that a nuclear was is possible even if no one wants it.”

The story involves three countries – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba – and their three leaders at the time – John Kennedy, Nikita Khruschev and Fidel Castro.

Blight says that while many people focus on the 13 unbelievably stressful days in October, 1962, the story actually began 18 months earlier. Kennedy was then the new American president. He carried through with the authorization of a previously planned private attack on Cuba and its Communist leader Castro. That invasion, known as the Bay of Pigs, was an utter fiasco. However, it convinced Castro that Kennedy was intent in taking over his tiny island. He turned to his most powerful Communist ally, Russian Premier Khruschev. Khruschev ordered that nuclear missiles aimed at the United States be secretly installed and sent 43,000 Russians to Cuba to handle that task.

“Cuba’s often overlooked, but it was the mouse that roared,” Blight says. First, Castro was really wrong about Kennedy’s intentions. Privately, the president was saying after the Bay of Pigs that he would never undertake any military operation against Cuba (even though there were many covert plots to kill Castro). And, for his part, while Khruschev wanted to back Cuba – which at the time was considered the crown jewel in the Communist empire since it was located only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland – he certainly didn’t want to start a war with America.

But once America discovered the Soviet missiles, a showdown was inevitable. In America, on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Kennedy delivered what Blight terms “the scariest speech that any president has ever given.” Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba, saying that if Soviet ships bound for the island didn’t turn back and the missiles already on the island weren’t removed, America would take action.

While Americans of all ages nervously waited for what would come next, low-level surveillance flights over Cuba continued. Cubans were convinced that such flights signaled an immediate American attack. In his mind, Castro was prepared to act, even if it meant possible world destruction.  He would allow Cuba to become a martyr for the socialist cause. “Cuba will matter. Cuba will make a difference,” Blight says, detailing Castro’s thoughts at the time. The Russians had ordered no action taken against the planes. However, besieged by his people, Castro, after witnessing one of the ear-splitting jet flights in person, issued the fatal order – shoot the planes down. The 43,000 Russians in Cuba were convinced that they would never return home, dying when the island “went up”.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khruschev, when he was notified of Castro’s intention, exploded. “This is insane. Castro is trying to drag us into the grave with him,” he was said to have shouted.

Finally, after days of negotiations, the Soviet ships turned around and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The options may have been few, but the right ones were chosen to avert a nuclear war. However, the positive outcome was never guaranteed. “You take Kennedy out and put someone like Lyndon Johnson in and we’re not here,” Lang maintains.

But what implications does studying the Cuban showdown have for us today in our 21stCentury world? The professors say there four:

  • Armageddon can happen. “You don’t have to go to science fiction, you can just go to history,” Blight says.
  • Nuclear war is possible even if no one wants it.
  • Big powers, for their own good, must empathize with smaller countries.
  • And, finally, you can’t know with any certainty what would actually happen in the event of another near-nuclear launch. “You can’t prepare. There are simulations, but in real life people can crack and crumble under such pressures. You can only do something like Cuba once. What happens next time is anyone’s guess,” says Blight.