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Uncle Barney? Oh, Get Him Alumpa Coal

Christmas Gifts for Strange Folks

By Amy B. Mcintosh

Santa Claus is a lucky guy. He has all those little elves to make toys for him so he never has to go Christmas shopping. It's a good thing, because Ole Kris Kringle just wasn't made to squeeze into the revolving doors of department stores, and security guards are naturally suspicious of anybody carrying a big sack like his. And how many department stores would take a check drawn on the North Pole Savings and Trust? Cashing one from a New York bank is tough enough.

Luckily, those obstacles don't stand in the way of the huge crowds of ordinary citizens who yearly fill the stores, discreetly pulling apart the displays of sweaters and bathrobes. Heck, Christmas shopping can even be fun. If you're not panicked for gift ideas, anyone can relax and enjoy the lights, decorations and choreographed insanity. And if you don't know what to buy because Uncle Barney already has all the ties he needs and your grandmother has 12 different sets of dinner napkins, the stores are full of new gimmicks--and old gimmicks in a new package--to help you finish off your shopping list in style.

Last year's biggest shopping fad was the electronic "pong" game that hooked up to a T.V. set to turn your living room into a reasonable fascimile of Father's Six. They're still around, of course, with even more kinds of games and a wider range of obnoxious little beeping noises. But as expected, the Christmas gift makers have come up with a new way to assail the television set this year.

As if television program offerings weren't bad enough, now you can preserve the worst of the lot for posterity--or at least until summer reruns--with the most heralded new gift idea of the season, the videotape recorder. These miracles of modern technology allow the average masochist to tape the show he's watching, one he'd like to be watching on another channel, and even one that's on while he's away. Some fun.

The gadget may become the best friend of anyone who resents the way football games interrupt Christmas dinner, but it's bound to confuse the Nielson ratings people. What will happen when shows that were on two weeks ago capture the prime-time Saturday viewing audience. Who really cares?

Time Magazine, always quick to proclaim the national mood, predicted recently that the advent of the videotape machine will force homeowners in the future to build their own "media centers" to accomodate the television and its ever-growing number of accessories. But, until the price of the videotapes comes down some from the $1000 mark, shouts of a video revolution are probably a bit premature. Catching the last half of "Charlie's Angels" just isn't that important.

For the armchairm quarterback (or manager) the year's most interesting gift idea is a biorhythm prediction kit for professional football (or baseball). The charts and tables allow you to plot the biorhythms of the pros, to predict which team will triumph on which particular day. When you reach an advanced stage of the art, the ads say, you can even predict the score. Or at least how well Roger Staubach is getting along with his wife.

This year's answer to the pet rock is a direct result of the nation's fuel crisis. This rock is called, originally enough, "Alumpa" coal. What's so special about Alumpa coal, you ask? "Pride," the brochure explains. "Regular everyday filthy coal gets no respect. Alumpa coal's gem quality demands admiration." Yeah.

Logically, the coal comes from "the ground," and it comes in one color--black. "Black goes with everything. If you want colors, get a peacock," the brochure suggests. For five bucks the shiny black stuff is "guaranteed to just sit there and if it doesn't, that's perfectly all right too, and you have no right to complain." A pushy bunch, eh? But it's o.k., as long as "Alumpa" isn't all that winds up in your Christmas stocking.

Even if your athletic ambitions are limited to throwing dice and moving around a board, people will always buy new board games. One of this year's offerings, "The Social Security Game" claims no resemblance to the governmental version--because this game, its boosters say, actually gives you some security in the end.

"Ratrace," by comparison, is supposedly a lot like reality. The ad for the game says "players start out in the working class, where most people are, with each player owning a small business, a credit card and $200. Bet you never met all those people in Appalachia and Harlem with small businesses and credit cards.) The object is to "parlay existing assets into more of everything that's good--like money, education, club memberships, jewelry, mink coats, and big boats--and less of everything that's not so good like divorce, high taxes and bankruptcy." Winners escape the working class, go "right through the middle class and straight to High Society and early retirement." Actually, it sounds less like reality and more like Harvard. Just be careful not to lose anything on the way up.

Shoppers can always count on Bloomingdale's for a Christmas innovation. This year the store advertises a "simple but chic" designer dress that squishes down to the size of a pair of socks (good for traveling), when it looks about as much like a dress as a tennis ball. Real chic.

Hard-core Bloomingdales fans can find happiness wearing bright colored panties emblazoned with the word "bloomies" or necklaces holding little gold Bloomies shopping bag charms. But you have to be very hard-core.

Devotees of Christmas catalogues will agree that the most outlandish gifts pop up in the Neiman-Marcus book. Neiman-Marcus has survived on Texas oil money for years and only recently opened in Washington to take advantage of the wealthy purses the government leaves in its wake. But, its catalogue goes all over the world and offers exclusive goods not available in --er, normal stores.

Among the more unusual suggestions are a 24 karat, gold-plated hard hat that can be engraved with the lucky owner's name and costs a mere $175. Or the book boats a single cup and saucer painted with a very abstract design by the Russian/French artist Kandinsky, which sells for $750.

But the real "treat" of the Neiman-Marcus catalogue is the feature item, always some incredibly extravegant and downright absurd gift idea. This year, for $16,000 each, a couple can own his and her urban windmills, which supposedly solve the energy crisis by providing electricity for all sorts of appliances. The house might be a little dark on a windless night, but that doesn't seem to worry Neiman-Marcus. They are already touting their toy as a source of free energy for the electric car--when and if...

If that gift isn't ridiculous enough for you, for $30,000 you and four of your friends can venture out on a "Lincoln safari" to, of all places, Springfield, Illinois, accompanied by Lincoln scholar and actor Richard Blake and an Honor Guard of the Illinois Fifth Cavalry and Regiment. You can meet an Illinois Gov. James Thompson who will present you with a registered deed to one square inch of land on Lincoln's "Forgotten Farm." The farm, where you will later camp out in Civil War tents, is "little known, even to the most avid Lincoln buffs," the catalogue explains. Probably to Lincoln, too. The finale of the safari will be the planting of a commemorative tree marked with a plaque bearing your name. Meanwhile, the Neiman Marcus folks will be planting all those green pictures of Lincoln you just gave themin the bank.

When the shopping trip is over, you may be convinced that "Jingle Bells" is a song about cash registers, and that green is a traditional Christmas color because people spend huge amounts of money for the holiday. Christmas shopping is here to stay, the department stores insist, and even good ole' Santa Claus will join the mobs eventually.

Then again, if you're lucky, you may buy all that

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