WASHINGTON -- Kwanzaa is my household's holiday of choice this time of year, although our observance always includes elements of Christmas. A nativity scene sits on the mantel next to the kinara (candleholder), for instance, and traditional carols are often played on the stereo. Both my wife and I grew up in families that celebrated Christmas, and we share fond memories of those days.
In keeping with our postmodern holiday mix, we also give our children store-bought presents along with the handmade ones usually associated with Kwanzaa. They get seven, one for each day of the observance.
Long accustomed to such largesse, our 7-year-old recently presented me with a list of gifts he hoped to receive. He'd studied the heavyweight ad circulars that had been arriving in the newspaper on weekends, each page packed with colorful images of glittering, glorious merchandise. After careful perusal of such, he and his siblings debated the pros and cons of various toys.
To further assist his befuddled dad, he listed the price of each item, a couple of which had asterisks beside them. The asterisks, he explained, identified choices that "may be beyond your budget."
I found his guileless candor charming, and naive besides: I wanted to tell him that they were all beyond my budget. But I appreciated his thoughtfulness all the same. As a child I rarely showed such consideration when I pressed my own lists on my weary, hard-working father. I aggressively defended my greed, blissfully ignorant of his efforts to keep us warm, fed and sheltered. All that mattered for me was the Plaything of the Moment. One year it was an ElectroShot Shooting Gallery; another it was a Willie Stargell first baseman's mitt.
Born in the early 1960s, I grew up when manufacturers were just beginning to regard kids as consumers with potentially lucrative appetites. "Children had long provided a market for toys and clothes, but television made it more possible to appeal to them independently of their parents," writes Lizabeth Cohen in "A Consumer's Republic." She goes on to discuss TV programs that "urged young viewers to `be the first on your block' to buy a particularly sugary breakfast cereal, packaged snack food, or new toy, all boldly enough displayed on the television screen for even the nonreader to identify on a supermarket shelf or in a toy window."
Multiply all that by a gazillion and you get the ad-splattered cable/Internet age, of which my son is a typical child. Although he knows the technological landscape, he isn't mature enough to distinguish the litter -- spam, pop-ups, commercials -- from the landmarks by which we navigate.
The most expensive item on his list was a Robosapien toy, which sells for $99. I hadn't yet heard of it and was immediately skeptical. Could it be any better than the Mr. Machines and Rockem Sockems of my wonder years?
Since then I've become familiar with its story. Robosapien is just over a foot tall, contains seven motors and one of those miraculous microchips that enables it to do nearly everything except recite the lyrics to Wu-Tang Clan's greatest hits. Sixty-seven functions in all according to Wow Wee, the Hong Kong-based company that makes the robots.
Although Robosapien and other high-tech creations are among this year's favorite choices, the nostalgic among us can take comfort in knowing that traditional offerings continue to sell. Battleship and Lincoln Logs are still on the shelf, just a few square feet away from the Xboxes and Game Boys. No toy or game, it seems, has a Monopoly on fun.
Sometime this month I'll take out the one toy I've kept from childhood, a simple wooden ramp older than I am. It works without batteries, bells, buzzers or microchips: You simply put marbles on its scratched, grooved surface and watch them roll down. I allow my children to play with it on rare occasions, such as the seven days of Kwanzaa. They have been taught to handle it as if it were a rare and delicate artifact -- and only under my supervision.
For a few minutes they'll forget all about the blinking lights and beeps of their new treasures and revel in the wondrous simplicity of an old one. There are no fancy slogans or bombastic ad campaigns to describe that kind of magic. But it costs way less than $99, and it's worth far more than words could ever say.