The tradition of gift-giving on Christmas goes back centuries, with children all over the world anxiously anticipating the gifts that await them.
Here in the United States, the tradition of Santa Claus coming down the chimney and delivering gifts has long delighted children. So, too, have the presents he brings with him — though those gifts have changed quite a bit over the years.
Do you remember what was waiting for you under that tree when you were a kid? I certainly do — though, admittedly, I’m not too far removed from my own childhood.
But this question is intriguing to those of us whose own life experience began sometime during the Reagan administration — what was Christmas like during the World Wars, or during the Great Depression between them? Or during the space age of the 1960s?
We at the Transcript Bulletin decided to do a little digging into what the holiday may have been like for children growing up a century ago, as well as in the decades between then and now.
Raggedy Ann was introduced in 1915, right near the end of World War I. The teddy bear also was a popular children’s toy, and the Erector set made its debut during the 1910s. Money certainly was tight back then, as the average annual income at the beginning of the decade was $574 — or just a shade under $14,000 in today’s money.
The average income took a jump to $1,407 (roughly $16,700) in the 1920s, and improved manufacturing techniques opened up a whole new variety of toys for youngsters. The iconic Radio Flyer red wagon was a favorite, while the yo-yo was able to be mass-produced and Lincoln Logs flew off the shelves. Mickey Mouse became popular, along with improved model trains and Tinkertoys.
Times got considerably tougher in the 1930s as the Great Depression stifled the U.S. economy. However, this is the decade that brought us the Red Ryder BB gun — the Christmas gift of choice for Ralphie Parker, the main character in the movie “A Christmas Story.” (No sign of Aunt Clara’s infamous pink bunny suit, however.) Army men also were a popular toy, as well as the now-iconic ViewMaster. The board game Monopoly also was created in the 1930s.
The average income had dropped to $1,315 by the beginning of the 1940s, but the dollar’s value had gone up, making that income worth approximately $22,300 in today’s money. Two of the most notable toys to come out of a decade marked by the onset of World War II were the Magic 8 Ball and the Slinky. Scrabble also was introduced.
The 1950s brought with it the baby boom, and a renewed sense of optimism in the United States. Americans had more disposable income than they had during the Great Depression and World War II. When it came to gifts for the kids, Mr. Potato Head and Play-Doh both hit the market, and Barbies and Matchbox cars were a big hit. Silly Putty, pogo sticks, hula hoops and skateboards provided hours of entertainment. Paint by Numbers also provided a popular pastime, and the adventures of Gumby and his pals enthralled youngsters.
As the 1960s began, the average income was up to about $38,600 in today’s dollars, and a number of toys that remain popular today hit the shelves. Legos, the Etch-A-Sketch, the Easy-Bake oven, the Frisbee and G.I. Joe all were popular toys during the decade, as were remote-controlled cars, Tonka dump trucks and the Lite Brite. Operation was one of the notable board games of the day.
People had even more money on hand as the 1970s began, and the decade laid the groundwork for some of today’s most popular toys. The Fisher-Price phone was born — you know, the one with the heavy base, the wheels and the moving eyes, and the inherent danger of having one thrown at you by an angry sibling — as was the far-less-dangerous Nerf ball. Games such as Connect Four, Uno and Dungeons and Dragons became popular, as did the video-game sensation known as Pong. Stretch Armstrong and Baby Alive dolls became treasured companions for youngsters, while the sci-fi craze surrounding Star Wars and Star Trek also found its way under the family Christmas tree.
The average income essentially flatlined at the beginning of the 1980s, but toys continued to become more and more advanced. Some of the toys I remember waiting for my sister and I when we were young included Transformers, Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony and Teddy Ruxpin. For the more grown-up crowd, games like Trivial Pursuit and Jenga provided hours of entertainment.
I also have great memories of Christmas mornings during the 1990s, even though money didn’t go as far as it once did. That didn’t matter to kids like me, though. We had games on the Nintendo, and later, the Super Nintendo, to keep us occupied — that is, when our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weren’t on the prowl. POGS were a brief craze that fizzled out sometime in the mid-1990s. Beanie Babies, Troll dolls, Power Rangers and Furby dolls all had their moment in the sun, but the 1990s can be summed up in three words: Tickle Me Elmo. Enough said.
With the turn of the millennium came more video games to keep kids occupied. The PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 all came out in the first decade of the 21st century, as did the Nintendo DS. Razor scooters were popular among the kids who didn’t spend all their time in front of the TV, while Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine were favorites among younger kids.
That brings us to 2015. A quick look at the list of popular toys for this year reveals that characters from “Frozen,” “Doc McStuffins” and “Minions” are at the top of most kids’ wish lists. “Star Wars” is also popular once again, allowing parents and grandparents to have flashbacks to their own younger years as their kids become acquainted with the Force and what it means to be a Jedi.
That is, if they haven’t already turned to the Dark Side. In that case, they might just find themselves with nothing but coal this year.