An excerpt from “The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays,” edited by Jonathan Last (Templeton Press, 2015).
At the end of the day, there are two types of parents in this world: Those who will get into a Yuletide, barroom-style mall brawl over a Cabbage Patch Kid, and those who will not. Thus far, I have fallen into the latter category.
I would congratulate myself for this, but I do all my shopping online, where the only barroom-style brawls reside deep in the wilds of the comment sections. It’s just not Christmas without a good old-fashioned melee in the toy section of a Wal-mart. It seems almost normal now, but you have to remember that it has not always been thus.
Let’s go back to the glory days of 1983. Ronald Reagan was president, “A Christmas Story” had just debuted in theaters, and I was a six-year-old desperately attempting to outgrow a disastrous preschool bowl cut. As a child, I wasn’t terribly interested in dolls, except for Barbie and my Wonder Woman action figure.
Both, it should be noted, were bodacious, dramatic, and glamorous creatures. Both also happened to sport, as my sharp-eyed yet anatomically challenged older brother noticed, a pair of “nice elbows.”
Enter the Cabbage Patch Kid, 1983’s mysterious “it toy” that was not bodacious, dramatic, or glamorous. In fact, it was so mushy-bodied that it lacked visible elbows of any kind. Cabbage Patch Kids were an odd conglomeration of visual unease: the expectant, spooky eyes; the tucked-in, lipless, “Twilight Zone librarian” mouth; the spherical feet; the brazen tattoo.
From Cabbage Patch Kids to Tickle Me Elmo
No one really knows how Cabbage Patch Kids took off, selling millions and millions of dolls—more than 100 million to date. Like historians debating the European powder keg of 1914, most veterans of the great Cabbage Patch Conflict of ’83 are still confused as to what the fighting was really about.
“They don’t walk, they don’t talk, wet their pants, or grow hair,” a reporter for New York’s WPIX-TV intoned in December of that fateful year, covering the Cabbage Patch madness. “They don’t do much of anything. But they have upset the supply and demand cycle to an astonishing degree.”
That was a rather genteel way of putting things, given that the segment led off with footage from the infamous 1983 Cabbage Patch smackdown in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If you’re not familiar with this particular moment in American history, it culminated in a shirt-sleeved store manager warding off crazed parents with an aluminum baseball bat: a striking, real-life homage to pretty much every zombie apocalypse movie ever made.
Despite my lukewarm stance on nonbodacious dolls, I happily received a Cabbage Patch Kid that Christmas. She came with the name Evangeline Joy; I was strangely thrilled, despite myself, to fill out the “adoption” papers.
By the time the next huge, rip-yourself-open, nail-yourself-to-the-wall Christmas toy came around—that would be Tickle Me Elmo, in 1996—I was safely ensconced in college.
When I say “safely,” I’m being literal. Elmo, at least the ticklish, stuffed version, was a mysterious, terrifying, cosmic trigger, filling the nation, as People magazine reported, with a kind of barbarian “blood lust.”
In Chicago, two moms were sent to the clink over an Elmo-related scuffle. In Canada, an unsuspecting Wal-mart clerk almost met his doom when 300 customers stampeded at the sight of the Elmo he held, apparently provoked by the splash of brilliant red.
What to Make of This
Clearly, the raw energy fueling the search for the perfect Christmas toy is something to behold. As the sands of time sift forward, the “it” toys of Christmas will continue to come and go—a Furby here, a Zhu Zhu Pet there, an Optimus Prime Transformer in the corner—leaving both joy and havoc in their wake. What can we make of it all? Better yet, what should we make of it all?
For many people these days, particularly in America, Christmas comes with a peculiar challenge: As a parent, you want to give your children lots of good gifts, but you also don’t want to turn your children into jerks. Each year, my sons collect toys for Operation Christmas Child, which sends boxes of presents to poor children around the world, and the Angel Tree project, which sends gifts to kids with imprisoned parents.
I have friends who limit their children to three gifts because, as they explain, that was good enough for Jesus. This seems like a wonderful concept, and every December I think, This is the year we’re going to pull it off! But alas, every year, I slip up. Because giving gifts, it turns out, is really fun. And giving Christmas gifts to kids is the most fun of all.
As a child I remember waking up while it was still dark, giddy. My brother and I would race to find our stockings and without fail, there would be an orange in each of them. I would grab mine, set it aside, and then, as often as not, forget all about it. In the 1950s, when my parents had opened their stockings in icy Iowa and Michigan, that orange was a rare winter treasure. For my mom, who grew up poor on a farm, it was sometimes the only Christmas present she received. For my dad, a Dutch immigrant, it was usually paired with some chocolate and maybe one other present, if he was lucky.
It’s a lovely thing, then, to see the joy that small gifts still bring to kids. For my three boys, last year’s Christmas list included requests for “seeds,” a “calider” (that would be a calendar), a “red teeshert,” and an “ant farm.” There were a few extravagant requests, too—a Power Wheels, which is one of those kid-sized cars that actually works when you hit the gas, and “a blue lightsaber, but a real one, like the one that cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand.” On the whole, though, I deemed my offspring to be a reasonable bunch.
They did not, by the by, get a Power Wheels, a working lightsaber, or an ant farm. Also, as a public service announcement, please do not ever give any of my children a Power Wheels, a working lightsaber, an ant farm, a drum set, a toy horn, a kazoo, a whistle, or—and I’m not kidding, someone actually gave us this once—a fake electric guitar that plays only one song. These are not so much presents for kids, you see, as instruments of torture for parents.
There Are Good Gifts and…Gifts
Which is to say, there are good gifts, and there are, well, not-so-good gifts. As a child, one of my most treasured Christmas presents was a Fisher-Price record player, which not only allowed me to rock out to Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, but also served as a carousel for Skipper and G.I. Joe. Another favorite was an electric typewriter, complete with “Correct-o-tape,” a white film that could cover up your mistakes—and yes, heckler in the back, I know I’m getting old.
Low-point Christmas gifts, on the other hand, included a crusty beach towel with a crazed-looking bald eagle on it—that was from my grandmother, who must have sensed my future in political writing early—and a terrifying, dangerously old chocolate-coated orange. Sorry, Grandma. I think that one was also you.
No one is perfect, of course, and we’ve all been the recipient of what I like to call an “Oh, You Really, Really Shouldn’t Have!” But this, like all of our earthly gifting attempts, is merely a metaphor for bigger things. Down here on the mortal coil, we try hard, and we often mean well, but really, we’re a mess. To put it mildly, we make a lot of mistakes.
But we also have hope. We know, deep down, what things could, and someday will, be. When you watch a small child— say, someone under the age of four—play with a new toy, you’ll notice that he or she almost always flattens out on the floor, head down, to get at eye level with the thing. I think kids do this because it makes the toy more real: With the child at the toy’s perspective, the Thomas the Tank Engine or the plastic lion or the Disney race car with wide eyes and a grin becomes bigger, more powerful, and full of life. It becomes more than mere plastic, wood, and paint. Through the eyes of a child, that toy is transformed. Just as, through Christmas—the real Christmas—we are.
Sometimes we give gifts out of duty; more often we give them out of love. But in the end, all of our gifts are messy replicas—a mere reflection of the awe-inspiring, incomprehensible love behind Christmas. It’s a love that sent the perfect gift, so mind-boggling it’s almost absurd: A baby in the manger, God incarnate, just for us.