'Must-Have' Toys?

Christmas… the time of peace and goodwill… and huge expenditure on stuff I’d question whether we really need… and that the planet can ill afford.  

In the mid 1980’s there was an unlikely toy sensation. The Cabbage Patch Kids were pretty ordinary-looking dolls which, for reasons I am unable to fathom, became an item which parents would literally resort to brute force in order to purchase for their kids.

A Cabbage-Patch Kid. Mildly disturbing in this author’s view.

Suddenly, this phenomenon became an annual ritual: the Gameboy, Transformers and of course, Tracy Island, which became so sought after that Blue Peter attempted to solve the dearth by showing youngsters how to make one from cornflake packets.

In the 1990’s the Power Rangers hit our shores big-time from the US of A. This programme was truly dreadful – its only redeeming feature being a strangely alluring Kimberly in pink. A whole range of merchandise arrived in our quaint British stores (monsters, vehicles and the like) but at the time, my then 5-year-old son number one wanted just two things with all his heart and soul: the Green Ranger and the Black Ranger. Of course, I couldn’t find these modest items anywhere, such was the popularity of lycra-clad quintet.

Blue Peter Tracy Island. Just like the real thing… Kind of. But I whole-heartedly approve.

Soon, my wife and I heard stories in the news telling of a local Toys-R-Us which had a daily delivery of Power Rangers goodies, and how every morning, a queue of parents would gather hours before the opening time of 9.00am in the hope of fulfilling the requirements of their collective offsprings’ Christmas lists. I was very sniffy and holier-and-thou about such lunatics but, as December 25th approached, I was still without the coveted figures. I soon realised that my only opportunity to acquire these simple purchases would be to join the throngs in the High Street at 6.00am. It was for this reason that I was to be found shivering, hours before sunrise, in the centre of town, chatting amiably with other dads cast out from the warmth of their marital beds by their spouses with the threat of being left out in the front garden if they failed to return with a Thunderzord Megazord.

A Thundermegazorgy thingy. Who wouldn’t queue all night for one of these bad boys.

By 8.00am, the queue was several hundred people long. It was fun; we laughed at the madness of it all, particularly those dads who were there for the third of fourth time. As 9.00am approached though, the atmosphere changed. Eyes became focused on the entrance; people asserted their position in the line; muscles were flexed beneath quilted jackets.   When the doors were flung opened, the queue advanced in a hasty yet orderly fashion. As we entered the building, I noticed a few shoppers had broken into a gentle trot, which soon become a canter and before you could say ‘It’s Morphin Time!’ a full-on stampede had broken loose. Some dads knew where they were heading. These guys had done actual research. I just followed the posse, trying to muster as much dignity as possible given the lamentable circumstances. Within seconds, the mob had rounded on the action figure aisle. Whereas other items of merchandise were placed artfully on shelves, staff had not even bothered to take the Power Rangers items out of their delivery boxes. They were dumped unceremoniously on the floor in approximately the correct location.

The Green Ranger participates in Wimbledon.

As two normally mild-mannered clerical workers broke into a fist fight over a Mighty Minotaur, I opened a box and there before me, as if fate intended, were a Black and Green Ranger. Ignoring the sound of angelic choirs and the shaft of sunlight which had burst through an invisible skylight, I placed them gently in my basket and made my way in a self-satisfied fashion towards the checkout in pleasant anticipation of the hero’s welcome, warm coffee and ‘perfect dad’ accolades that surely awaited my return. But… suddenly… to my horror… my eye caught sight of an improvised, scrawled notice at the till. It read ‘Only one Power Ranger toy per customer’. Despite my most heartfelt pleading, the cashier confirmed the policy and sent me back to the appropriate aisle to return one Ranger. I was crestfallen. Even worse, it was a distinct possibility that I was going to have to undergo this whole pantomime all over again.

A ‘Must-Have Elf on the Shelf’. Plastic destined for landfill, made by exploited workers. A perfect Christmas lesson for our children.

Unexpectedly though, a cunning and devious idea struck me. Firstly, I looked around. No-one was about, except for a few unconscious casualties of the Power Ranger riot. I surreptitiously approached the Tonka toy section and found a line of car-transporter trucks. Using a sleight of hand movement I had no idea I possessed, I slipped the Black Ranger behind the seventh truck and, having paid for the green fellow, making a careful note of the cashier’s facial features, found refuge in a café which sold half-decent coffee. I then waited for two hours – possibly the longest of my life. At 11.30am I returned to Toys-R-Us. My hunch that  seven Tonka trucks were unlikely to have been sold in those few hours was indeed correct. Reaching behind the line of vehicles, I retrieved my prize. My second cashier of the day – selected due to her distant location from cashier number one – looked most surprised when I presented the Black Ranger for payment. ‘These normally go in minutes!’ she exclaimed, with alarming force. ‘I found him behind the Tonka trucks!’ I replied. I didn’t even have to tell a white lie.    From this experience I learned that Darwin is not only about survival of the most forceful. A little bit of cunning can come in handy as well.   

A Tonka Transporter. Never a must-have toy but a life-saver for me in the 1990’s.

In rural areas of France, Christmas is celebrated with a passion. I did take great pleasure though in the fact that the event lasted two or three weeks rather than two or three months. The appetite for huge, unnecessary consumption was absent in our experience. Amen to that I say. My favourite Christmas feature was the incredibly naff animatronic nativity scene which adorned the entrance to our village church each December. It was more kitsch than Eurovision Does Strictly. I feel that to describe it in detail would be to duplicate blogs and posts of years past – scroll back to witness the two-dimensional wonder of nodding donkeys, inert shepherds and slowly levitating Jesus figures in all their mechanical glory.

As was always the case on festive occasions, the French concentrated their time, effort and resources on preparing the dinner table rather than buying plastic junk at the command of a marketing campaign. It was a much more old-school approach. As one would expect in this age of globalisation, French youngsters are becoming immersed in advertising. They too are tempted by promises of happiness and status through the ownership a particular item. It is well known that French culture is resistant to change. At the time of writing, many rural French families remain reluctant to go with the flow of the masses; just as many in British culture are also rejecting crude, over-inflated consumption, opting to spend their money family time and building memories instead. Have a joyful and peaceful Christmas everyone.

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen and Other Essential Tips from Seven Years of Musical and Family Life in Rural France.