I would be lying if I said I miss the Christmas shopping crush. My four kids are grown-ups now. I’m emancipated from the pressure of must-have video game systems or impossible to find yet coveted toys that every self-respecting kid expects to see under the tree.
In fact, I have no idea what the popular toys are this year.
But TV commercials remind me that there’s a universal truth played out every year in homes across the country: In a world of toys, there are always those that your kid just has to have.
It’s a truth captured comically in “A Christmas Story,” a movie played annually on a 24-hour loop beginning Christmas Eve and ending around the time it’s all over but the wrapping paper recycling.
In that movie, all Ralphie wants is a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. That’s it. Even after being told by every adult authority figure in his universe that he will “shoot his eye out,” Ralphie doesn’t waver.
In the end, Santa doesn’t deliver, but dad does. And of course, the kid nearly shoots his eye out. But that’s the beauty and the crux of Christmas toys past: What fun is a toy if there’s not some actual danger involved?
Watching that movie makes me a little nostalgic for all the other reckless and certifiably dangerous toys of my youth. These days everything is so safe, so sanitized. My flammable Christmas morning nightgowns are just a misty memory.
That’s because everything changed for kids in 1972, when the government established the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a.k.a. the toy police.
But before that, we thrived in the Wild West of hazardous toys and lived to tell the tales. I was no Calamity Jane, but I had my fun. And I have to wonder if, as a result, kids today have gone a little soft, what with all the government safety regulations and lead-free paint rules.
Take a walk with me, like a Dickensian spirit maneuvering Scrooge through a maze of childhood memories, as we recapture some of the joy of killer Christmas toys past that created a generation of survivors.
You can still find chemistry sets for kids, but not like the ones my parents’ generation enjoyed. A little research turned up the Gilbert Atomic Chemistry Lab, which for about 50 mid-century bucks included sodium cyanide, powerful enough “to dissolve gold in water,” and radioactive uranium ore. From the product description: “Produces awe-inspiring sights! Enables you to actually SEE the paths of electrons and alpha particles traveling at speeds of more than 10,000 miles per SECOND! Electrons racing at fantastic velocities produce delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation – beautiful to watch. Viewing Cloud Chamber action is closest man has come to watching the Atom!”
For comparison purposes, I Googled “chemistry set” to see what tomorrow’s chemists can tinker with today. Sigh. Anything that comes in an “environmentally friendly brown cardboard box” and promises to give you the power to “depolymerize a yogurt container” pretty much sums up the dismal future for aspiring scientists.
Bat Masterson Derringer belt gun
Likely marketed for mid-century boys enamored of James Bond gadgetry, this cap gun disguised as a belt buckle would swing out with a pump of your tummy muscles and fire small pellets at the “bad guys.”
Let’s just say that many a young boy came close enough to shooting up the family jewels that this fast-action fashion accessory had a very short shelf life.
Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker
Raise your scarred hand if you, too, experienced the thrill of hot, toxic plastic burns. This toy encouraged you to mold said hot plastic into spiders and bugs – it was right up there with the other popular toys of the 1960s, like the original Easy Bake Oven and Incredible Edibles. All three toys required kids to harness electricity and extreme heating elements to manufacture things they could eat or use to scare their moms. The Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker and the Incredible Edible Sooper Gooper caused countless flesh wounds. My own Easy Bake Oven failed when I forgot to unplug it, and the hot light bulb melted the plastic oven.
This game of skill – and chance – also called Ker-Bangers, involved two hard acrylic balls suspended on strings that challenged you to create enough g-force to get the balls to “clack” in mid-air with the right wrist action. I can tell you from experience that if you didn’t fracture your wrist from the force of the balls crushing your metacarpals, you may have been skilled enough to shatter the Clacker balls in mid-air, releasing plastic shrapnel in every direction.
Back then, we equated true Clacker expertise with the Memorex commercial featuring Ella Fitzgerald shattering a wine glass with just the right torque of her vocal cords. (“Is it real or is it Memorex?”)
These giant lawn darts, aka Jarts, were aerodynamically designed to float like a butterfly and sting like a giant killer bee. In theory, they were a game of skill, like horseshoes or darts, for grown ups. But in actuality, enough children got their hands on them – and were maimed and skewered by errant darts – that Jarts were banned in the 1980s.
Snacktime Cabbage Patch Kid
As a parent in the 1980s, I remember the daily pilgrimage to the local toy mecca, waiting for the next Cabbage Patch doll shipments to come in so I might win the Christmas lottery and deliver Cabbage Patch Kids to my two kids on Christmas morning. I’m not proud to say I elbowed my way through a Christmas Eve crowd just to get my hands on two of the ugliest dolls ever made. And they were harmless enough – until in 1996 when the Snacktime Cabbage Patch Kid hit the shelves.
These dolls had the ability to ingest plastic “snacks” that were forcefully sucked through their voracious chomping lips, processing them through their empty plastic heads and into a small backpack on the other side.
Unfortunately, the dolls did not discriminate between plastic french fries and small human fingers, and the dolls were swiftly discontinued after crushing one too many fleshy fingers.
Of course, I could go on. But I think you get the idea. Christmas, for kids, has always been about waking up to the stuff of dreams – and unfortunately, some misguided nightmares. If nothing else, we’ve learned from our mistakes, and our 21st-century kids will wake up a little safer for it Dec. 25.
All that’s left is my wish for you, borrowed from the immortal words of author Jean Shepherd, who gave us Ralphie and his indelible Christmas story: With one good eye on safety, may you and yours “plunge into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice” that is Christmas morning, and may you emerge with all your body parts intact.
My Turn: originally published Dec. 21, 2014 in The Concord Monitor