DEL MAR — When does a virtue become a vice? Or vice versa?
Each year my husband collects sale catalogues that arrive early in December, brimming with shiny baubles, plush furs, the latest robotic toys. He collates them, discarding some, and arranges the survivors in alphabetical order. Then he settles down for a long winter's nap, undisturbed by the frantic activity that swirls around him. He's all set to beat the holiday crush by shopping early--exactly 364 days before Christmas!
Later, in the comfort of his recliner, he consults his notes on colors, sizes, likes and dislikes, even allergies. He is well aware, for example, that his brother-in-law almost never wants a dress shirt, but takes a "large" in every other kind. His mother adores pale blue--especially in long frilly nightgowns.
The day after Christmas, he brings home bags full of exceptional buys to squirrel away as gifts for the next season. Fabulous bargains are also to be had in fruitcakes, French bonbons, British marmalade--these gourmet items are usually 50% off, as are all cards, wraps, decorations. Christmas linens and china are also reduced drastically.
So on Dec. 26, he rises early--around 5:45--to face his finest hour. After a rib-sticker breakfast--bacon and eggs, toast with black currant jam bought the previous year--he heads out, wearing his sturdiest shoes, at least an hour before the store opening. When an apprehensive clerk turns the key, the person leaning against the door is my husband, with latecomers massed behind him. This accumulated humanity surges forward, like an avalanche, pushing everything in its path.
Many are just harried exchangers with fire in their eyes. Some are returning mauve floral dressing gowns two sizes too small--or too large--for which no receipt can be found. Men display garish ties, forlorn cooks hold aloft their broken blenders. Naturally, most of these customers are both grouchy and disheveled--not a sales clerk's dream.
But the real pros have come to buy really hot items--the pick will be gone in an hour, or less.
My husband is neatly dressed, smiles a lot and generally waits on himself. His plastic money is ready in hand. Best of all--as harried employees note with relief--he has nothing to return. (Even with relaxed exchange policies for Christmas shoppers in effect, no item held in stock 365 days earlier could be returned.) He moves confidently from counter to counter, store to store--even takes time for lunch.
Choices abound. People tend to forget that much first-quality merchandise is brought back early in the day. And he can count on the fact that better shops don't approve bait-and-switch techniques. Besides, those same overworked elves who stock counters before Christmas even labor steadily at refilling them for the days after the holiday. The second biggest shopping spree of the year is on Dec. 26, surpassed only by the day after Thanksgiving.
Time and human contrariness occasionally produce their combined mischief. The ceramic platter bought for a cousin's wife was never delivered; in June, cousin and wife moved apart, to different addresses, and by autumn nobody was speaking to anybody. During one year, a great-aunt became a small aunt, dropping 40 pounds on a diet. The size 42 cerise lounging robe, elegant in its fur trim--a steal at 70% off--would have draped her new frame like an ill-fitting tent. Then there was the time a gift box of expensive brandy proved inappropriate for a nephew who had decided to go on the wagon.
Even success can become galling. Recently, my husband was grumbling that some of the Christmas card envelopes had lost their stickum during our humid summer. And when he tried to find usable space in an overstuffed cabinet, stored rolls of gift wrap bounced out in every direction.