Immediate Non-gratification

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 08, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — It is 75 degrees and the leaves on the maple tree in my yard are barely tinged with red. An entire division of bees, flying in a tight-winged formation that would put the Blue Angels to shame, is competing for a landing spot on the snapdragons.

The raspberries we planted last year are offering their second, shabbier growth. The tomato plants, in a fit of undue optimism, have put out another set of flowers.

We are talking apples today. We are talking foliage. We are talking Indian summer. We are most definitely not talking reindeer and large, cheery men in red outfits.

So why are there five Christmas catalogs in my mail? Deck the Halls with boughs of pumpkin? Jingle leaves, jingle leaves? What is going on here?

We are planning for the three-day Columbus Day weekend, and they are into the 12th day of Noel. We are barely out of air conditioning and they are offering goose down. We are thinking of baked apples and they are thinking of fruitcake. (Something no decent person should ever think about at any time.) Even my gardening catalog, normally a paragon of well-bred and hybrid discretion, is hocking holly wreaths in October instead of tulip bulbs.

Something is out of whack, and for once you can't blame the greenhouse effect or chlorofluorocarbons. In the land of merchandising, the seasons have simply gone out of season. Where is Vivaldi when you need him? He's in an air-conditioned mall somewhere playing ''White Christmas'' on an organ.

I was once impressed to discover that Eleanor Roosevelt had completed all her Christmas shopping by Halloween. By today's standards she would be a procrastinator.

My first hint that people were playing around with the calendar happened when I went shopping for a bathing suit one July. The salesclerk told me in the patronizing tone reserved for small, slow children that I was rather late to get a complete selection. The suits began to arrive in early April, when I was occupied with other things, like chipping ice off my windshield.

I would like to blame this trend on places like California where they don't have seasons and have always tried to undermine ours. In Olde New England, as Olde as the early 1950s, we still had a strawberry season, one brief and luscious interlude, followed by asparagus and tomato. We ate what was growing around us, and waited until it came around again. Postponed gratification was good for our puritanical palates.

Now we have something that masquerades as a strawberry all year round. Every winter salad is topped by something indistinguishable -- in a photograph -- from a tomato. In a blind tasting, three out of four people won't be able tell the tomato from the strawberry. They are dreadful and plentiful. Immediate non-gratification.

But it's the merchants who are playing calendar roulette. They have turned Lincoln's birth date into a movable Monday, lugged from one day to another like a samples case. They've put Washington's birthday continually up for sale. And now they are telling us that Labor Day begins the Christmas season.

The creation of one national mail-order market has produced catalogs without the slightest respect for any season or region. Their holidays are now harvested, transported and chemically ripened on the way to your home. The only date that has become inflexible is the one marked ''shipping.''

Remember all those sappy movies that ended with the young hero wishing that the spirit of Christmas could prevail all year round? Be careful what you wish for.

You could end up with a Santa Claus costume for Halloween, trick-or-treat under the mistletoe, and a burning yule log -- electric, of course -- for Thanksgiving. Even a plastic tree is going to start dropping its needles at some point.

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature. I refuse to fast-forward through the fall. I won't make a list and check it twice, think about who was naughty and nice, until the very last piece of leftover turkey has been stuffed into the last unwary visitor who knows not the mysteries of fricassee.

But I do see, one tiny glimmer of hope in the pre-emptive strike NTC of the Christmas catalogs. Call me a cockeyed October optimist, but if Christmas is already here, can spring be far behind?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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