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GROANS FOR THE HOLIDAYS SANTA KEEPS TURNING UP IN THE STRANGEST PLACES

ONE OF my favorite Christmas decorations as a child was an 8-inch-high Santa Claus with a spring neck.

It was made from cardboard covered in felt (not every family collects Hummels), and it twisted apart at the middle so that Santa's hollow belly could be filled with candy. Preferably chocolates.

The cat liked Santa, too. She would sit close and, with a periodic pat of her paw, make Santa's head go boing, boing, boing.

The best part, however, was that Santa's bottom half could be twisted 180 degrees so that his boots pointed in the wrong direction. Such contortions sent young mischief-makers, already teetering on the brink of holiday hysteria, howling.

These days, however, the old spring-neck Santa, tacky as it was, wouldn't stand a chance, what with the competition from the latest Christmas paraphernalia and all.

Not that every decorative item is ticky-tacky. Many collectibles, figurines and accessories are quite beautiful. And many homeowners and apartment-dwellers display them proudly.

One elderly woman, for example, stood admiring the display of Lenox "Holiday" dinnerware in the china department at a local store.

The design features an off-white background trimmed in green holly and red berries. In addition to place settings (priced about $82 for dinner plate, cup and saucer), accessory pieces include candlesticks, bud vases, candy dishes, cheese trays and more.

"I use my set beginning the day after Thanksgiving right through until the end of January," she beamed.

And we bet she sets a lovely table.

But, today, we're talking about the type of merchandise that assaults shoppers everywhere from the smallest convenience stores to the biggest discount stores.

Warning: Wreath-shaped refrigerator magnets and Santa Claus pencils await you at every checkout counter in town.

Halloween -- even with this year's attack of those giant orange leaf bags -- pales in comparison to what's going on this yuletide season.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining -- and so is about every home accessory under the sun. Door chimes, hurricane lamps, bar ware, trivets, coasters, napkin rings, place mats, bath rugs, even corkscrews carry holiday motifs and colors.

A toothbrush ($1.59), fuzzy toilet seat cover ($12) and ceramic cookie jar ($20) all feature whimsical Santa designs.

Mugs are dotted with snowflakes. Soaps are shaped like reindeer. Candles are colored like candy canes.

Even Diet Pepsi cans and Kentucky Fried Chicken containers have holiday designs.

Novelty items catch the eye as well. Holiday boxer shorts proclaim "I want it ALL this Christmas" and other holiday flirtations likely to send Miss Manners straight into orbit.

There's also the "Mouse Capades" holiday shower curtain ($30) -- a clear plastic curtain featuring Mickey and Minnie whizzing around on ice skates.

Of course, Mickey Mouse bath towels, rugs and other accessories are coordinated to match.

The "Santa Splash" design, also manufactured by Saturday Knight, is another option for holiday revelers who find the time not only to address their Christmas card envelopes with calligraphy but also to redecorate their bathrooms.

The prize for the tackiest yuletide gimmick, however, goes to Happy Holidays Toilet Paper ($4), a roll of tissues short on sheets but big on holiday greetings like "Joy!," "Peace!" and "Make Merry" printed in red and green ink.

Holiday cocktail napkins and paper products galore hit the racks this time each year, too.

Ditto fingertip towels. Shoppers can choose from a sleigh full of appliqued or printed designs. There are green wreaths on red towels, red poinsettias on white towels, white bells on green towels . . . you get the idea.

And there's more. Scented potholders (about $4 each) emit whiffs of such holiday odors as peppermint and cinnamon. And musical oven mitts (about $5 each) not only help chefs handle hot pots, but entertain them as well.

Clever? Maybe. But if your home is anything like ours during the holidays, five cooks in the kitchen arguing over how many teaspoons there are in a tablespoon surely will drown out any rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" from a padded piece of cloth.

One thing's for sure: When people say it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, they're not kidding.

Give it a rest, ye merry gentlemen.

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