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Volume 15, Issue 50 ~ December 13 - December 19, 2007

The Lesson of the Plum

I procrastinate, but only once did I come up short at Christmas

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

–Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: 1868

Louisa May Alcott’s words gave merchandising its biggest boost ever. You’d think every shop everywhere would have a statue of her at its entrance.

Santa Claus owes her, too; he should have named a reindeer in her honor. Without mothers and fathers putting so many gifts under the tree, think of how much harder and longer he and his elves would be working up there in the North Pole.

I’m one of those shoppers who wait until the last minute, when things turn from a rush to a crush; from the shelves, display cases and racks all the good stuff has been sold — and if not sold it’s no longer available in the size and color needed.

All merchandise must be sold, for the space will be needed for all the stuff that will come back on Dec. 26, much of it returned by recipients of gifts from last minute shoppers who didn’t have the time or opportunity when the right size, color or whatever was available.

Procrastinators like me don’t much mind. So I didn’t get wife Lois what she wanted, or in the color or size she wanted it? Well she can take it back — and that gives her the opportunity to shop for what she wanted and didn’t get. And that’s not all.

Because procrastinators make mistakes, so much merchandise is returned that her gift in the right size and color will be returned by another procrastinator’s wife, which makes things okay between her and me. Meanwhile, what she returns will fit the fancy of some other procrastinator’s wife.

Everybody is happy: the store whose bottom line is selling; the wives, mine included, who will say it’s the thought that counts; husbands who have survived another shopping season — and Uncle Sam, who wants to keep the economy on an even keel.

So, you see, we procrastinators have a place in the overall scheme of things. Methinks merchandisers would throw us a bone, a bone they could chew on, too.

Seeing that we procrastinators represent an appreciable percentage of those who pass through their doors, why don’t they withhold some of their best stuff until a Procrastinators’ Night promotion, which, of course, would be Christmas Eve. Then we’d have a shot at buying something not shopworn but in the right color and size.

Yeah, I know the most faithful of the procrastinators would miss it; for them, open the doors at 4am Christmas morning before even the kids get up, but enough time to grab a few gifts and have ’em wrapped and under the tree before the stockings are taken down from the fireplace.

Penny Candy; Five- and 10-Cent Gifts

Back in 1868, there were fewer procrastinators. And back then there wasn’t a profusion of expensive gifts. Kids wrote lists for Mom and Dad or to Santa, but they didn’t hope to get everything on the list.

They’d settle for just an item or two under the tree and whatever was in the stocking, which incidentally wasn’t one of those fancy ones with your name and Santa on it. No sir, it was a stocking that had come as one of a pair, right off the feet, washed, then hung. Even kids who no longer believed in jolly old St. Nick hung stockings: their footwear was the only avenue for oranges, nuts, candy (along with a small toy or other item) during the Great Depression.

I was the oldest and had the largest feet, so mother decided that to even things out I should loan my younger three sisters and brother a stocking. Only at Christmas did I appreciate the knickers Mother insisted I wear for warmth and durability. One wore full-length stockings with corduroy knickers. Inexpensive ribbon candy used up enough space that the stockings bulged.

As for shopping, it was pretty much a one-stop affair. Ten-cent stores — Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Newberry’s and such — sold a wide assortment of wares for five and 10 cents. Our father gave us each a dollar to spend in the village. He’d pick us up about an hour later, and all our shopping was done. Somehow we managed gifts for the four other siblings, mother, father, Uncle Jack, Aunts MiMi and Caroline, Grandma and a close friend or two.

That took some doing. I was a Big Shot. I shopped twice for Christmas. I spent much time at Grandma’s farm; she and Aunt Carolina decided to teach me thrift. Sometimes they would give me a penny for doing a chore, but they insisted I save each one in a cold cream jar for Christmas presents. On my birthday, Dec. 15, the loot was counted. Usually it was about a dollar; Grandma and Auntie made up any shortage. I was presented a dollar bill, and off to the city we’d go.

During the Depression, a kid who had two bucks for shopping was indeed fortunate. If I worked things right, I could spend 20 cents each for my brother John and sisters Ruth, Lorna and Ticy; Auntie always insisted the same amount be spent for each. I complained it wasn’t fair; they usually spent only a dime on me.

After buying what gifts could be afforded and buying a chicken or two with all the trimmings for the big day — we thought only the rich could afford a turkey — there wasn’t anything left for Christmas parties. Moreover, my sister Ticy and I had birthdays just before Christmas, so we missed out on birthday parties. We made do with one of Mother’s cakes.

Our only Christmas party was at the Congregational Church Christmas Eve, when Santa visited following the speaking of pieces by the kids — which got me in a tad of trouble when six. My piece was Jack Horner, and I adored plums. Mother put a plum in a pie plate and pasted a top with slits on it. I also figured I could dig inside and just taste the plum. You know the rest.

When my punch line and pulled out a plum came, I had only the sloppy seed. The congregation thought it was a hoot — all except Mother. My public speaking debut was a flop.

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