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Babes in Toyland

O holy night, the night the Red Ryder BB gun and Authentic Old West Town are borne.

At this blessed time of year, when Christians celebrate the birth of their savior and people of all faiths exchange wishes for peace on earth and goodwill to all, thoughts naturally turn to, well, toys. The Bible doesn't actually say the Three Wise Men brought toys to the baby Jesus, but it's hard to believe any infant would be satisfied with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold has continued to be a popular gift — for adults, that is — down through the centuries, but where can you even find myrrh nowadays?

(OK, I take that back. I just checked on Amazon.com and found myrrh powder for $7.50, bulk myrrh resin for $11.92 for eight ounces and 100 percent pure myrrh oil for $16.09, marked down from $22.99. If the Wise Men had Amazon.com, they could have had their gifts shipped directly to Bethlehem and saved themselves quite a camel ride.)

At any rate, toys have a long association with Christmas, providing busy if seasonal work for Santa and his elves. (From January through early June, I've read, they fill in the slow time making fireworks for July 4 — jobs outsourced from China.) Without the greedy cooperation of children around the world — and especially here in the US — the North Pole would be an impoverished Third World country ripe for the preachings of Islamofascism, and Dick Cheney would be stockpiling armored sleighs right now. Instead, the North Pole is the happiest place on earth not created by Walt Disney, except of course for crunch time starting in mid-December when the elves pull long hours of mandatory overtime and Santa dips into the bourbon balls.

As a child, I certainly did my part, greedwise. When I was growing up, of course, we didn't have Amazon.com, much less the Internet, so I had to walk 10 miles in a raging blizzard to the mailbox to retrieve the eagerly awaited annual Christmas catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward. (Yes, they probably arrived in October, but keep in mind that I grew up in South Dakota, where every few years a blizzard would knock out the Fourth of July fireworks and Halloween costumes all involved parkas.) I don't know if Sears even prints a Christmas catalog any more, and Montgomery Ward — "Monkey Wards," as we called it — has gone the way of buggy whips and typewriters. But when I was a kid, catalogs from department stores — printed on old-fashioned paper, not forged from tame electrons on a glowing screen — were the stuff of Christmas dreams.

As you might guess, I was an unusually well-organized child, and my approach to the annual list for Santa was no exception. Catalog pages were carefully dog-eared, coveted toys thereon were circled in red, and a master list combining toys from both catalogs was painstakingly compiled for easy reference by my parents and Santa. Most important, toy selections were prioritized. Not knowing the level of generosity that any particular Christmas might inspire, I was careful to highlight the most desperately desired toys while also providing options for extra stocking stuffers and baubles under the tree.

I'm sure that if I were growing up today, my Christmas list would have been turned into a PowerPoint presentation.

Unlike Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, who campaigns for a Red Ryder BB gun, I seldom fixated on a single, must-have toy. My imagination ranged more widely and greedily through the catalogs, covering multiple price points and crossing genres from the Wild West to science to automotive.

So there's no single toy that, even today, I recall above the rest as making one memorable childhood Christmas special. Rather, it's the totality of the display on Christmas morning — ideally, as though the entire toy catalog had been made manifest and transported under our tree — that I remember most fondly. Always there was a moment, after my pajama-clad, bathrobe-swaddled walk down the hall from my bedroom to the living room, drawn like a moth to the rosy glow of the tree, when I stood transfixed. Just for an instant, I didn't race to dive into the panoply of presents. For a heartbeat or two, the possibility and the reality of Christmas morning, of all those dog-eared catalog pages and childhood wishes, intersected — like some quantum-physics experiment, in which toys are simultaneously wished-for and received.

Then, of course, under the bleary gaze of my early-roused parents, my mom listening for the ultimate perk of the coffeepot she'd plugged in along with the tree lights and my dad drawing on the day's first cigarette, I'd plunge in. The major toys would be inspected first — we weren't one of those families for whom Santa wraps everything, so no frantic ripping was required. Then I'd dump out the contents of my stocking, which sometimes still included fruit as it had in my parents' childhood. (If I wanted fruit, I'd open the refrigerator!) Finally, I'd dash to check whether Santa had made short work of the cookie and glass of eggnog left out for him the night before. (Non-alcoholic eggnog, of course — he had a sleigh to drive. Besides, the only liquor in the house was gin and vermouth. Hey, Santa, how about a martini this year?) Reliably, only crumbs and eggnog scum would remain. No wonder Santa was so plump, if this ritual was being repeated at millions of households.

Only after I'd made these rounds would actual playing begin. By this time, the coffee would be poured. (How could they drink that stuff? wondered I, who now drink it black, by the gallon.) So would the orange juice for me to sip in-between Indian raids on my new Authentic Old West Town or daring Hot Wheels drives down a curving plastic track.

Strangely, the toys I remember best are those that Santa — with the late-night assistance of my technically inept dad — most struggled to assemble. That Authentic Old West Town, for instance, was made of metal — they built toys tougher back then — which required inserting tab A into slot B and then bending. Another year the star was a toy gas station and auto-repair shop, similarly constructed of painted sheets of metal. I imagine Santa's elves' ears must have burned from the names they got called that Christmas Eve.

Other years I got more involved in the assembly, on Christmas morning after the big reveal. Maybe I was older; maybe Santa and my dad had simply had enough of those damn metal tabs. In any case, I recall putting together a plastic weather station, suitable for any budding meteorologist. The telescope another Christmas — perhaps I'd be an astronomer instead — required only attaching an eyepiece and putting the whole thing on a tripod. (That telescope sat in my dad's library for years after, dusty and mostly unused. Who knew that constellations and planets wobbled so much up there?) Still another scientifically themed Christmas brought a microscope. Good thing I didn't want to be a nuclear physicist ("Kids! Split atoms in your own basement with Cyclotron Junior. Some assembly required.")

I did think I might be a chemist, an interest I pursued all the way into college until Organic Chemistry 101 strangled that ambition with little plastic models of benzene molecules. So, of course, one Christmas there was a chemistry set under the tree.

What were my parents, Monkey Wards and toy manufacturers thinking? Forget lead paint in Chinese-made toys nowadays! This thing had little vials of sulfur, a Bunsen burner, alcohol fuel for said burner and Pasteur only knows what other weapons of mass destruction. In the movie, Ralphie's mom famously warns of his coveted BB gun, "You could put an eye out with that thing!" With my chemistry set, heck, I could put out both eyes, burn my hair off and poison half the neighborhood. I was like Iraq's infamous "Chemical Ali" without the burnoose. This is a toy? If I'd gotten this in 2007, the UN would be imposing economic sanctions on 2716 S. Lincoln Ave., Sioux Falls, SD.

Somehow, I and my playmates survived to dream of another Christmas morning and still more toys, deadly and otherwise. And even though, at the time, Christmas seemed to be all about the toys, in retrospect I think even then I suspected otherwise. After the toys had actually arrived and been broken in (or simply broken), when the Christmas-morning coffeepot was empty and the tree was unplugged for safety, when it was just another snowy December afternoon, I'd feel a bit of a letdown. Christmas was over. The catalog dreaming and boundless plaything possibilities were done for another year.

After all, these were just toys. How could they match the months of anticipation?

I imagine the baby Jesus felt pretty much the same way: What is this — myrrh?


Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell is making
a list and checking it twice.


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