Mama Madison: A sure sign of the season

The ritual of paging through the new American Girl catalog

Everyone looks for a different sign that it's time to start planning for the December holidays. For some it might be that initial glimpse of candy canes and light-up snowmen in a store window. Or perhaps it's the first Salvation Army bell ringer asking for change upon leaving the mall.

But the way I know I need to start gearing up for list making is when the November American Girl catalog arrives in the mail. Ours came early last week, well before Thanksgiving, and my daughter has fallen asleep reading about Caroline Abbott, this year's historical character doll, every night since.

My 10 year old has never been one to desire "her two front teeth" or even a Furby or Zhu Zhu pet for the holidays. All she's ever wanted was an 18-inch, plastic doll representing a romanticized version of life in a bygone era. A few years back she received Josefina, a citizen of 1824 New Mexico, making her Mexican, I believe, as opposed to actually American. The following years brought Elizabeth the 1774 British loyalist (she might not like being called an “American Girl”, come to think of it, either), and Yiddish speaking Rebecca of pre-hip, Lower East Side fame. And this year, it's the blonde-haired, blue-eyed catalog cover girl Caroline -- a War of 1812 heroine-- that she's coveting.

My daughter will first go the academic route and promise me that if I buy her Caroline this holiday season she'll learn to distinguish "Old Ironsides" from the Titanic and will dutifully memorize all the stanzas to the Star Spangled Banner. Then, she'll proceed to read aloud every product description on pages 28 and 29, trying to reel me in based on each accessory's historical accuracy and attention to detail. Yes, Caroline's ice skates may be "true to her era" and her toy bed's mattress does seem to rest on ropes rather than springs. But, when my daughter points out the $300 parlor set featuring a framed mirror that can be flipped over booby-trap style to "reveal a nautical painting" on the other side, I have my doubts. Because while I really don't know much about standard decorating practices of the early nineteenth century, I kind of doubt reversible "art" -- as practical as it seems -- was commonplace.

My daughter is definitely catalog/on-line shopping-centric, especially around the holidays. Why shop in real stores (except the American Girl doll store, of course) she thinks, when your dream doll from the Nixon era is just a website click away? But I'm hoping to use this passion (obsession?) to fuel some interest in heading out to a real store or two this holiday season. And this weekend’s Downtown Madison Holiday Open House should be a great place to start. First, I'll remind her that many of the AG characters, like Kaya of the Nez Perce tribe, are (were?) pretty outdoorsy. So we should definitely check out Driftless Studio's awesome array of nature-themed gifts. We can follow that up by wandering over to craft Mecca Anthology and make a garland from assorted fancy papers and baker's twine, just like Caroline Abbott might have done herself during the Christmas of 1812. And we can continue from there to the kid activities at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum in honor of Molly, the World War II era doll's, army doctor dad.

And perhaps the sighting of the free, red Holiday Trolley cruising up and down State Street can become a fresh annual sign that the holidays are upon us. Hopping on and off one to buy locally at downtown Madison's one-of-a kind shops and boutiques just may become a new mother/daughter tradition.

And at the very least, streetcars are charmingly reminiscent, I'll remind my daughter, of how historical dolls Marie-Grace and Cecile would have gotten around in 1853 New Orleans.

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