Although for me today the Christmas season starts on/the day after Thanksgiving, when I was a kid it started when they JC Penny's catalogue arrived. My sister and I were so excited when the Christmas Penny's catalogue came in the mail. There was a large toy section in the middle and we would spend hours every day poring over the pages and picking out toys. We loved to look at the dolls, games and even the science kits We made our Christmas lists mainly from the Penny's catalogue and from toys we saw advertised on TV. We generally asked for a few "big ticket" items, as well as some smaller toys.
These lists would be written up and put in our stockings a few weeks before Christmas. The stocking hung on hooks from the hutch when we were in the duplex and didn't have a fireplace. Santa would then send his elves to pick up our lists overnight. We were sometimes disappointed because the elves didn't always pick up the lists on the first night. But mom would re-assure us that the elves were just very busy and she would... oh, uh... they would pick up the lists as soon as they could. We would then wait expectantly for Christmas morning.
We did visit santa at the mall sometimes, but it was really about having our picture taken - not about telling him what we wanted. By this point the elves already had our lists! I don't remember meeting Santa much, but I understand that it was often a spur of the moment thing. We saw Santa when we saw him - whenever we happened to be at the mall and have money for a photo. We didn't really plan it in advance as an event like I see many families doing now. Thus, the NASCAR t-shirt and Burger King crown in one of my favorite photos.