Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane - Christmas Coloring Books!

Below is the text of an essay I wrote and read at a local writer's club Christmas party a few years back. A trip down memory lane for me and maybe for you too (let me know if it is!). Enjoy!

"Drawing Rudolph"


“Everything I Really Need to Know
I Learned from Christmas Coloring Books"

by Jim Schmidt
The Woodland’s (TX) Writer’s Guild Holiday “Pig-Out”
December 7, 2004

Like most people, I have wonderful memories of the holidays of my youth– trips to the mall to see Santa; the smell of sausage sizzling on the stove, to be served by my great-grandmother after Midnight Mass; tree farms; favorite gifts, and more. Still, for me, Christmas always had a very practical side – it was also a career path.

It was because of Christmas, more specifically Christmas coloring books, that until my mid-teens, I intended to study to be an artist and illustrator. I loved Christmas coloring books, and when I was a kid, there seemed to be dozens to choose from - and I always chose carefully. I whiled away hours of holiday time, at the table or by the tree, with crayons in hand. The pages were filled with wonderful drawings for me to finish anyway I wanted to – and I do clearly remember a reverence that seems to be missing now.

The books inspired me to draw on my own. My dad used to bring home reams of used computer paper from his workplace. At times the pages might be filled with usual boy’s fare – tanks and planes and explosions and baseballs and footballs and whatever else came to mind – but from November to January – and sometimes past - they were filled with holiday creations.

After some practice – and unapologetic tracing - I could draw Santa on my own: not just with a red triangle atop his head like the other kids did – but with his cap jauntily flopped to the side. I could draw snowmen – not just three circles atop each other like the other kids did – but ones that might spring to life given the benefit of a winter miracle. I even crafted and perfected an open block-letter signature, like my hero Norman Rockwell’s. Once signed, the artwork would adorn the family refrigerator or be mailed to grandparents.

As late as my sophomore year in high school, I fully intended to go to art school. My high school counselor – curiously (purposely?) nameless and faceless given that he had such a profound impact on the rest of my life – did not explicitly dissuade me, but he did encourage me to take science classes as well. His gymnastic logic was that someday I may be called to illustrate a chemistry textbook – and what would I do if I had never taken chemistry?

Perhaps it’s better that in time science did replace art - a portfolio of portraits of Santa and snowmen and Baby Jesus may not have been enough to secure a spot in a prestigious art school – probably not even the ones advertised on the inside covers of matchbooks.

Nevertheless, all of those holidays spent with crayons and coloring books still yield dividends. Just last year, late in December, a co-worker needed a large picture drawn of a reindeer so that her son’s fourth-grade class could play “pin-the-nose on-Rudolph” at their holiday party. Whether she asked or I volunteered, I can’t really recall. I do remember – can’t forget is a better way to say it - the sense of anticipation as we unrolled a large piece of brown paper to begin the project.

With a page torn from a coloring book as a guide, and a purposely-dulled #2 pencil as a tool, I began to sketch with large, lightly drafted lines, erasing and redrawing as necessary to fix proportions. No crayons were at hand, but a search of our own desks, and a quick raid of the secretary’s, yielded markers of the required colors. We traced the outline carefully (since anxiety necessarily attends permanence). The project done, I was reluctant to yield the masterpiece – by all rights it belonged on my mom’s refrigerator – but my patron, who had rewarded me with smiles and gratitude out of proportion to the work, had a more practical –and important - use.

Last year’s episode still sits before me: a nostalgia sundae topped with Rudolph’s cherry-red nose. To scratch the itch, I searched for a good Christmas coloring book this past weekend, but without success. I went from store to store – names aren’t necessary as they are all guilty – and found only a few. I immediately disqualified the “Barbie,” “Bob the Builder,” and “Spongebob Squarepants” books; when it comes to Christmas and cartoons, only “Peanuts” gets a reprieve from me.

One, titled “The Big Book of Christmas Fun” was several hundred pages long. Too big! Its excess seemed more in place in an aisle at a warehouse club – next to the gallon-sized tins of black olives and other commodities that won’t be finished. The other was less than thirty pages and was also titled “The Big Book of Christmas Fun.” Too small! Its pages were filled with dot-dots, word puzzles, and other activities seemingly intended as busy work.

My inclination to call the managers of the stores to complain was replaced by worry. Had I become Christmas coloring book snob? What happened to the coloring books of my youth? Are they lost forever – replaced by NASCAR tree ornaments and life-sized jiggling Santas?

In twenty years where there be anyone around who can still draw Rudolph?

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