Sat04192014

Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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From an 1899 Christmas List to the Zu Zu

It’s a common complaint this time of year. Parents, and they’ve been doing this for at least the past 40 years, moan about the ever increasing complexity of our Christmas gifts. The toys get more gadgety, more electronic and more complicated with every passing year. Of course, I say that while delighting in every new feature I discover on my iPhone, and of course, I don’t know how I got along without my electronic razor with its 10 different settings, and, oh yes, a clock. I have no idea why it has a clock, but there it is. Then there is the Zu Zu. A friend of mine managed to find one of these for her daughter. They’re very hard to come by. I didn’t ask how she got it, but I suspect it probably involved an envelope changing hands at two in the morning somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike. Zu Zus are the automated hamsters that are the toy of 2009. My guess, watching these little critters go through their tricks, is that the Zu Zus have more computing power in their one or two chips than my PC had in its entire motherboard back in 1983.

There was, however, a time when Christmas wasn’t digital, wasn’t automated, or for that matter, wasn’t even electronic. One of my family heirlooms is a cutout of the “Letters to Santa” from the December 21, 1899, edition of the Centerburg Gazette. Centerburg is a lovely little town in Ohio where my father’s family is from. There are two letters, one from my grandfather, age 5, and the other, from my great uncle, age 7. My granddad loved Christmas, and that’s why I was surprised that he had a fairly modest list. He wanted an ABC book (his mother, an elementary school teacher probably insisted he put this in), a train of wooden railroad cars, a drum, a horn and lots of candy. Candy was always his weakness. Mine too, I am afraid. His brother, who would go on to become a college professor, wanted a story book set and a map of the United States. He also offered some advice to Santa on how to properly hitch up his reindeer. The gifts were simple, even by the standards of the time, and since my granddad’s family wouldn’t have their house wired for electricity until just before World War I, their Christmas lists were completely free of electronics, flashing lights or computer technology.

However, I knew my grandfather well enough that I suspect that if he were a little boy today, he’d want all the gadgets and would be well on his way to becoming an accomplished gamer. But 110 years ago, he got along fine without them. Also, his mom and dad didn’t have to stand in line for hours trying to buy the latest toy, and also, didn’t have to dip into the college fund to buy them.

My Christmases, which were a lot of fun, even though times were simpler by comparison to today, still had their share of electronics. I had a radio-controlled car, quite sophisticated for the time, that I absolutely loved. But I was also fond of a toy called Kelly’s Garage. It didn’t “do” anything. It was all metal, with lots of dangerous sharp edges, guaranteed to terrify any modern day child safety advocate. I ran my toy cars through it, pretending they were getting worked on, filling up on gas, and getting washed. It was heaven, and I played with it for hours. But there wasn’t a single electronic component to be found. It lasted for years until it finally just came apart.

I don’t pretend to expect that toys will ever go back to the simpler times when they didn’t require advanced computing technology or the latest in electro-mechanical wizardry. That would be foolish. But I still take a certain delight in seeing a child playing with a doll, riding a brand new tricycle, or, my gosh, even playing with a set of blocks. It sounds downright primitive doesn’t it? But, to me that still says Christmas better than most any toy I can imagine.

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