The Gray Elephant with the soft, pink ears was sitting on the piano bench on Christmas morning. I was about 5. It was roughly the same size I was.
That's the present I'll never forget. I think it had to do with sharing a room with my brother in a small apartment and marveling at the extravagant impracticality of a stuffed animal that took up so much space, the most precious commodity we had. That elephant and I played school and had tea parties; I made dresses for it, along with a rocket ship built after we got a new sofa and I persuaded my parents to hang on to the box for weeks.
Friends tell me how to this day, the smell of new plastic evokes Baby Tender Love. They recall the gust of freedom a new bike blew in, and the endless architectural possibilities provided by a tub of Legos: six bricks fit together in 102,981,500 ways. Will any of this season's hot toys leave marks so deep? Or would strapped parents do better to remember the toys that changed them and go looking elsewhere?
Parents waited in line seven hours to get into Toys "R" Us in Times Square when it opened at midnight on Black Friday, in search of Zhu Zhu hamsters, priced at a recession-friendly $8 but commanding 10 times as much on eBay. Robot rodents are an improvement, I suppose, from some fads past: in the mid-1800s, the hot toy was the naked, china Frozen Charlotte doll, modeled on a girl who went out to a party one winter night without her wrap because she wanted everyone to be able to admire her pretty dress; by the time she arrived, the popular folk song went, "Fair Charlotte was a stiffened corpse/ And word spoke nevermore." How charming. In 1889 a puzzle game called Pigs in Clover, which involved tilting balls through metal rings, was such an addictive obsession among children and adults alike that President Benjamin Harrison was ridiculed for playing it when he was supposed to be attending to matters of state.
The best toys transcend, their survival a testament to their purpose and power. The Babylonians played board games; the ancient Greeks had yo-yos. The Chinese were flying kites 3,000 years ago. Crayola crayons were first produced in 1903. In 1916, Frank Lloyd Wright's son John, inspired by the way his father had built an earthquake-resistant hotel in Tokyo, invented Lincoln Logs. And many great toys are accidents or improvisations, a serenade by kids whose first drum set is a wooden spoon and a tin pot. Play-Doh was invented as a wallpaper cleaner. In 1943 a Navy engineer trying to smooth the sailing of battleships found that a torsion spring would "walk" when knocked over. If you stretched all the Slinkys sold since then end to end, I'm told, they would circle the earth more than 125 times.
The worst toys are the opposite: overdesigned, overengineered, the product of so much imagination on the part of the toymaker that they require none from the child. The ancient Egyptians played with dolls, but today's dolls are practically self-sufficient: they talk, walk, dine, dance, do long division. Why bother setting up the play schoolroom when they already know more than we do? Among the Huffington Post's "15 Toys Not to Buy" this holiday season is Baby Glutton, a doll made in Spain that makes sucking sounds and comes with a halter top for little girls with flowers as nipples and the tagline "Because you shouldn't have to wait until you have breasts before you start breast-feeding your baby."
Even classic toys get face-lifts, rendering them inexpressive. There is something ridiculous about being able to buy a sock monkey. Legos used to be jumbled batches of bright bricks with the occasional wheel or axle. Now you can buy the Star Wars Venator-Class Republic Attack Cruiser kit, 1,170 pieces with instructions longer than The Brothers Karamazov. You build a cool spaceship, so long as you follow the directions a useful skill, but not the same as constructing a cathedral out of nothing but cubes and confidence.
Toys are a trapeze, swinging us from age to age. Those that leave nothing to the imagination never sweep us off our feet. So maybe it's good news that toys have turned out not to be recession-proof after all: analysts called last year's holiday sales the worst fourth quarter in decades and it was the flashy, buzzy gizmos that fell fastest, while the classics held their own. Kids like the dough more than the cookies, the box just as much as what's inside. This is a rare case when the straps around your wallet serve the interests of your children, who might amaze you with what they can produce with a pile of construction paper, a box of crayons, some glue and a quiet afternoon in which to use them.