Several years ago at a flea market, I purchased a copy of the 1956 Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogue.
I acquired this lavishly illustrated compendium of necessity and desire while working on a book about the look and life of America in the 1950s and '60s. I wanted the catalogue for what it would tell about the pulsating pastels, swooping jet shapes and proudly artificial materials that were the stuff of mid-century consumption. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be about love.
Only when I got the old book home did I see that back when it was new, someone else had pored over the catalogue and annotated it, ever so faintly, in pencil. Throughout the catalogue, which offered merchandise for every setting from barn to boudoir, items had been earmarked for particular people. The handwriting appeared to be that of a young girl, but her choices were made with the gravity of an adult. There were enough erasures throughout the book to indicate that she was giving her selections at least a second thought.
The sheer number of contemplated purchases--close to 150--suggested that she was not buying but fantasizing. Still, even though her generosity might have been wishful, it was no less real. I suspect she would have bought all those things if she could, and felt good about bestowing them on her friends and relatives. She was doing what we all try to do when choosing a gift--connecting a person and the feelings we have toward that person with a particular item for a particular price.
In some cases, the gifts met a practical need. This seemed particularly true of those marked for "Papa": work boots, rugged trousers, a warm coat, a selection of tools. These suggested that her father lived a life of hard physical labor, probably on a farm. The most bluntly utilitarian item selected, however, was probably the new sump pump chosen for Uncle Al.
Like many gift givers, the girl with the catalogue seemed to want to leaven necessity with a touch of luxury. Ma was also down for an electric range, a steam iron, a supply of pink plastic clothespins, a fine leather handbag and an evening dress with sequins. (I wondered what Papa would wear when she wore that.)
Even the flannel shirt chosen for Uncle Al in the fashionable colors of coral and charcoal indicates that his niece wanted him to have something nice. He was more than just a wet basement to her.
Sometimes the items chosen seemed to reflect a desire to transform the recipients by giving them things that they would never buy for themselves. The diaphanous slips and brassieres earmarked for Ma and for Agnes, Jane and Aunt Lucille probably fell into that category.
The aspirations we have for others sometimes get us into trouble. Perhaps those who receive our presents don't want to be transformed in quite the way we imagined. I know that the friend who gave me an electric shoe polisher thought she would improve my life. But all it does is crowd my closet, and cause me to ponder from time to time whether she thinks I have scruffy shoes.
"It's the thought that counts," we all tell each other once the holiday season reaches its climax of torn gift wrap and tissue-paper snowdrifts. For the next four weeks, we'll be crowding into the malls, the streets and the byways of cyberspace, thinking up a storm.
There's no question that this seasonal frenzy of generosity toward ourselves as well as toward others is at least as much about money as love. Around the world, millions of people have been working for the last year, creating animated treetop angels, DVD players and performance fleece sleeveless vests for us. The trade deficit gathers round the American Christmas tree and all the nations rejoice.
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude from the sheer volume of stuff we'll buy during the next few weeks that Americans are a uniquely materialistic people. Indeed, we rarely care very much about the material qualities--the intrinsic character, quality or usefulness--of a Christmas present. The gift is necessary, but only as an outward sign of love, loyalty, devotion or obligation. The thought really is what counts.
The secret of America's economic dynamism is that we see objects not as ends in themselves, but rather as temporarily useful embodiments of enduring, unattainable abstractions.
From the beginning, we have seen the automobile not merely as transportation but as a tool for freedom. No amount of gridlock can dislodge that idea from our minds. Similarly, computers promise efficiency, speed and connectedness. We discard computers long before they fail, simply because we are seduced by the prospect that new ones can do more.
And we rarely purchase luxury items--the fine watch or pen, the designer suit or dress--only for their intrinsic beauty or craftsmanship. If we were true materialists, we would be satisfied to own something exquisite. But most Americans buy such goods to prove ourselves successful, even though that is impossible to do conclusively.
As gift givers, we are like the Wizard of Oz, knowing that what we give is inadequate to the yearnings of the recipients. I can't give you back your youth. But I can give you a boxed set of all the songs that were playing on the radio back when you were too miserable to realize how gloriously young you were. I can't make you feel your life is worthwhile. But I can give you a cordless electric screwdriver, which might come in handy someday.
This might sound like an exercise in futility, but it's really an invitation to thoughtfulness. Even if we have lost the naive expansiveness of the young woman who marked up the catalogue, her apparent conviction that each of her loved ones deserved an array of unexpected wonders still animates most holiday shoppers. Her diligent benevolence mirrors that of the merry old list checker, Santa Claus.
Ponder as you join the throngs that every person in the crowd is searching for things that will make particular people happy. Not all will succeed. But the search itself is a gift.
Thomas Hine is the author of "Populuxe" and, most recently, "The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager" (Bard/Avon).