It all started out very innocently, as most addictions do. I had no idea that a simple purchase several years ago would someday lead to a never-satisfied hunger involving insane amounts of money and a severe emotional impact on both my lifestyle and my family.
See, I had always wanted to have a cute little Christmas village like some folks do during the holidays, with those little porcelain houses and maybe a few accessories. Some tiny people that you can put here and there for a touch of humanity. Oh, and some fake snow, of course, gotta have that.
But as usual, with my innate ability to lust for things beyond my justifiable price range, my eyes were rigidly fixed on the village pieces offered by a certain company known as “Department 56”. Those of you in the know about such things will instantly realize that my dreams were destined to be shattered, unless I had recently discovered oil in my back yard whilst trimming a pesky bush.
Department 56 is expensive. And not just “wow, that’s a little pricey” expensive. They are more along the lines of “holy cow, what kind of profession could someone possibly have to be able to afford this ridiculously-priced line of porcelain products? Is this even legal?”
One single house in their various “lines” of products can run you a hundred dollars. And that’s a mid-range price; some of the fancier items are even higher. A hundred bucks for something that just sits there and does nothing tremendously exciting other than the fact that you can turn on the low-wattage bulb inside and pretend that the house is lit up. It’s like an Easy-Bake oven, but there are no dings at the end of the cooking cycle and you don’t get anything to eat.
I’m not paying a hundred bucks for something like that, especially if there’s no sexual gratification involved. Sayin.
So I just assumed that I would never have a quaint little village to display in the house during Christmas time. Sure, there were a few really cheap knock-off lines that offered miniature holiday housing, but those items always looked like they were “hand-painted” by drunken howler monkeys during the peak of the mating season. I didn’t want any crap like that.
So the dream was shoved to the back-burner. Perhaps one day people would recognize my immense worth to the global community and I would finally be financially rewarded in an appropriate way, thus allowing me to purchase wildly-overpriced trinkets without being forced to eat beans for an entire year. Maybe someday, not now.
Then came that fateful shopping trip.
I was in Kohl’s, that fascinating emporium of a department store where you can manage to wrangle a really good deal on some decent items as long as you stack your coupons just right and pay attention to the sales. (Never, ever, pay full price at Kohl’s. It’s madness to do so. Wait for the sale. Yes, you run the risk of your particular item and size not being available when the sale finally hits, but that’s the chance you have to take. If you pay full price, and then see it marked down 75% two weeks later, you are not going to feel good about yourself and will need therapy.)
So we’re meandering through Kohl’s on the day that changed my life, with me probably looking for some KitchenAid product, because that was my ruling obsessive-compulsive addiction at the time. (I could not rest until I had every red utensil the company produced.) A wrong turn was made, and we were suddenly in the “Christmas section”, with twinkly things on fake trees and all that bogus pseudo-religious paraphernalia with sparkly crucifixes and angels that talked when you pushed a button.
And in the midst of all this was a display of little porcelain houses, with the miniature people and the cotton-puff fake snow blanket. All the Easy-Bake ovens were on, and things were glittery and shiny.
This stuff looked good. Of course, it wasn’t Department 56 quality, by any means, but the dangling price tags let me know that you really shouldn’t expect that. This was villaging on a budget, but for once it really didn’t look that cheap. In fact, the houses were pretty amazing, considering the cost.
The name of the product line, for those of you outside the world of rabid villagers, is “St. Nicholas Square.” Over the years, the line has had its ups and downs, but at that particular moment the quality was top-notch for a budget line. This was not crap. This was sponge-worthy.
I whipped out my currently-valid Kohl’s coupons (I’m serious, you have to keep on top of these things and plan accordingly), and realized that in some cosmic confluence of coupons and on-going sales, I could purchase these dwelling for half of the already-low price.
I looked at my partner, Terry. “Go get something to put this stuff in. Now.”
He raced off (because he understands when I’m serious), while I began scrounging through the boxed-up houses behind the display. I selected several to my liking, and I snatched up a number of accessories as well. By no means was I in the feverish mode I would eventually be in years to come, but I was pretty psyched about the whole situation. Tiny bit of impending buyer’s remorse, because you are never certain about addictions when they are in the baby stage, but I was smiling at the moment.
Thus began my twisted obsession.
We raced home with my purchases, and I carefully set up a tiny little village. Maybe four or five houses. I’m not sure. I don’t even remember where in our home I set up this first village. That’s the distant past. In the years since then, that tiny little village has exploded into a metropolis of immense proportions. It’s now an overwhelming force of nature that descends on our home every November.
That first year, I don’t think most of our friends even noticed the little village. Perhaps some of them may have made comments like “well, isn’t THAT cute” as they walked past the exhibit on their way to the cash bar. (Hell, I had to pay for the village somehow.) To my friends at the time, it was just another example of me going a wee bit overboard during Christmas.
Because I love Christmas. Really do. It’s not just about religion, although I understand and appreciate that angle. To me, it all goes back, way back, to a time when I still believed in Santa. And I don’t even mean specifically a man that wore red and depended on reindeer for navigation and transport.
Of course I was young, but I do remember it very clearly, that time of complete innocence when you were giddy with excitement over the concept of someone giving you something extraordinary simply because you had been a good person. It was a magical feeling.
And as I matured (yes, that accomplishment is certainly up for debate) and started going through the suck-fest that life sometimes can be in the real world, it only intensified my memories of that simpler time. And every year, when I stumble upon my first lit Christmas tree of the season, I instantly go back to my happy place, even if I happen to be walking through Lowe’s in September, wearing shorts and a tank top, when I see the first tree.
Through the years, as is natural, I slid from being the boy who had hopes for getting something good to the man eventually able to afford giving those good things to others. And so I do. Not because I can but because I want to. All that scrambling from one end of town to the other in search of the perfect gift is completely worth it when I see eyes light up and a look of surprise come over a face. Joyous discovery, with a little sprinkle of magic dust that I’ve kept in my pocket for forty-odd years. That stuff still works, ya know.
To my peeps in the current day: Do you finally get me now about the Chistmas thing? So stop with the protests that I’ve spent too much and take your present home and put it somewhere nice so you can see it every once in a while and think, wow, that was really sweet of him. And then you can go watch a pleasant little movie on “Lifetime”, and for at least a little bit there are no worries.
Anyway, back to this damn village that has taken over my life.
The second year I set out my little holiday town, there was considerable expansion. (Apparently the word was out this was a nice place to live, and adventurous folk were quietly snapping up property while the prices were still low.) I think I added another ten or so buildings that year, most of them from Kohl’s and their wickedly low-priced “St. Nicholas Square” line.
I already had enough buildings to actually do a bit of urban planning. I had a Main Street/Town Square thing going on, and a small park area, and enough residential houses to start a small neighborhood. Nothing fancy, really, though it was taking shape nicely. And I already had visions how sprawling this might become in the future. My budding kingdom.
But I still wasn’t in the complete throes of addiction, where I would tear into Kohl’s the precise second the new crop of buildings became available at the start of the season, knocking over the slower shoppers and grabbing everything in sight, and then turning to face the crowd with a territorial growl. That wouldn’t happen until a later time.
Like the very next year. Seriously, I had researched the whole thing online, and I knew the exact date the village would be available in the stores. I practically helped the local store put up its display, advising on proper building placement (I already considered myself an expert) and nearly coming to blows with one idiot who thought it would be okay if he didn’t plug in the dairy barn because the cord didn’t reach the outlet. Oh, no he didn’t.
Then I purchased one of every new building they had in stock and all the new accessories (with stacked discounts, of course). I had so many groaning bags of goodies that I had to make several trips to the car. (By the way, what’s up with Kohl’s not having real shopping carts? Those stupid black bags only hold two buildings each, on average, so that makes my village retail experience a little too labor-intensive for my tastes. Hate them a little bit for that.)
Explanatory note to those who aren’t familiar with, or really don’t care about, this villaging thing: St. Nicholas Square, just like Department 56 and most of the higher-end collectible companies, only have each building available for a certain time. Usually, the lifespan is about 3 or 4 years. But if a particular model has really poor sales, that puppy can be gone within a year.
So if you are a completist like me, wanting to have every model they make (and I was already at that point by the third year, pathetic as it sounds), you have to snatch up the new ones as soon as you see them, because you might not ever see them again. I want everything, even if it’s a slightly ugly church and I already had 7 churches in my inventory. I was no longer interested in only the cute things. I wanted it all.
I think it was that same third year when I broke the rules, even though I had told myself repeatedly that I would not do this: I actually paid full price for a house in one of the Department 56 lines.
Yes, Department 56. It was 85 dollars. Not only was I breaking my marriage vows with St. Nicholas Square and seeing someone on the sly, but that someone was a high-dollar hooker with expensive tastes. I just couldn’t help it. The first warning sign of a deep addiction: when you will get your fix from wherever you can get it no matter the cost.
The Department 56 piece was actually one that Terry and I had both marveled at one day in Foley’s (back in the day before Foley’s was sucked up by Macy’s). This mechanical whimsy was a fascinating thing: a Krispy Kreme donut shop, complete with a rotating sign on top that lit up. I’m sure I wet myself a little when I first saw it.
I knew right away that I was going to get this. But how could I justify the expense? Hey, it was Christmas time! Bingo! I could get if for Terry and then lease him some property in my village. But I initially played it off as being way too pricey and we walked away, setting up the “surprise” part of giving that I enjoy.
So I got the Krispy Kreme building for Terry, breaking my Department 56 virginity in the process, presenting it to him on Christmas Eve with all the love that I babbled about a few paragraphs ago. And it really is his, completely and totally. It just lives in my village, and in the end that’s all that really matters. This is another aspect of the “surprise part of giving” that I really enjoy.
It was the fourth year of the village when things finally spiraled out of control, moving beyond a hobby that I was slightly freakish about and into the realms of madness.
That year, my sins were many.
Obviously, I raced to Kohl’s on the opening day of the St. Nicholas Square new offerings. Even at that time, I was already familiar with other “first-day” obsessives, folks with the same lust in their eyes as mine. We broke through the doors at the opening bell, flat-out running through the store, taking risky short cuts and leaping over the ever-present ugly, crying children in order to get to the Christmas section first.
Once there, it was every obsessive for his or her self. We each yelled out dibs on clear spaces in the area that we could use as holding pens for our purchases, then leaped into the St. Nicholas Square shelves with a frenzy, clawing and fighting. This was serious business. If you lost a limb in the process, then that was just the price you had to pay.
I managed to grab a box for each of the prized new buildings and whisked them to my declared holding area, but just barely. (I did feel a little bad about having to elbow that one lady really hard in the ribs, especially when she started wheezing and had to pull out an inhaler, but honey, you have got to train for these things. Clearly, she was an amateur and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.)
Stupidly, Kohl’s had not planned properly for this Day of the Rushing Obsessives Who Need More Realistic Goals in Life, and their stock was far short of what was needed to satisfy the angry mob in their Christmas section, with people thundering around and knocking over artificial trees with tacky ornaments. The empty-handed people were none too happy.
It got a little tense. The loser vultures were circling my little pile of golden goodies, waiting for me to be distracted so they could lunge in and latch onto one of my newly-adopted children. They knew I couldn’t carry all of this to the checkout counter. Kohl’s doesn’t have shopping carts! They smiled evil smiles as they closed in tighter, drool dripping from their chins.
But I was ready for the onslaught. I had strength-trained all week, had a huge breakfast, and was adequately conditioned to stand here the rest of the season, if necessary, until they finally went away. I was fully prepared to pee on the buildings if I had to, marking them as my own. But it didn’t come to that. All I had to do was whip out my Kohl’s charge card, worn to a razor-sharp edge on one end from years of swiping at the checkout counter, slash it through the air a few times and grunt, and the goons went racing off to see what was left in the Bedding department. Having a good credit score can truly save your life.
This left a small set of victorious shoppers, a select group of obviously-skilled village worshippers who had triumphed over the weaker fledglings in this pivotal variant of reindeer games. None of us could carry all of these ginormous boxes to the checkout counter in one trip. At the very least, there would be two safaris through the Kohl’s jungle of crazed shoppers and misbehaving children.
It was now a matter of trust. Could we depend on each other to do the right thing and not raid each other’s stash during the requisite multiple journeys? Could we act in kindness, respecting fellow citizens’ efforts to enrich their lives with holiday products? Could we believe that our intended purchases would be safe from disappointed customers returning from the Bedding department where there was nothing decent left to fight over?
Hell no, we couldn’t. This was Dallas, where people will shoot you over a Snickers bar and not think twice about it.
It was High Noon at Kohl’s, and Gary Cooper was nowhere to be found…
Click here to read the next entry in this story…
(Originally published in “The Sound and the Fury” on 12/06/09. Revised and updated with extra flair for this post.)
Categories: The Stories