My now 7-year-old requested one for her birthday in July 2014. I explained how pricey the dolls are, how the accessories lay a consumerist trap, how much better it is for one’s brain to play with an open-ended toy like a block and how Mommy thinks it’s not fair for some kids to have playthings that cost more than some families’ food budgets for a month. Used to my proselytizing, she nodded in understanding — and then put it on her Christmas list.
She happily snuggled the $25 Melissa & Doug doll Santa brought that year — and then put the real thing on her next birthday list. There it was again Christmas 2015 and summer 2016. Last week, after carefully giving “Amircan Girl Dall” top billing, she turned to me and said, “I know it’s too expensive, Mommy, but Santa doesn’t have to buy it like you would. He can just make one in his workshop!”
I remembered the sense of wonder I felt in 1987, the unadulterated delight that washed over me as I carefully peeled back wrapping paper to reveal Teddy Ruxpin’s fuzzy little ear. My mother had repeatedly refused to entertain the notion, but Santa? He was my savior. I looked at my persistently hopeful little girl and then at her brother and sister (who also insisted on American Girl dolls because anything the oldest touches turns to gold). I pictured Teddy’s miraculous mechanical lips and his high-tech cassette-tape player. I caved.
Googling revealed that Addy and her book would cost me $115. As “Girl of the Year,” Lea runs $120 on the company’s site. I took a deep breath and tried my go-to move: Amazon. No dice: Even on Cyber Monday, it would cost me about three times our monthly power bill to get Lea’s “warm hazel eyes that open and close, and long, light-brown wavy hair with sun-kissed highlights.”
But it’s not like that’s all my money would buy. What mother wouldn’t spend more than she has allotted to her own wardrobe all year to get a doll with “a bright, multicolored dress, featuring an attached braided belt and braided trim on the straps”? Throw in sandals, underwear, “an embroidered canvas messenger bag” and, my favorite, “a pretend compass necklace,” and it’s basically a bargain.
Since I’d rather eat doll hair with tomato sauce and meatballs than send my son the message that dolls are only for girls, one or two wouldn’t suffice. But three would cost more than $400. That math sent me to the resale market. On eBay, one seller beat out another by offering Grace for $159.95 rather than $159.97. That’s not to say there were no deals to be had. I saw a few used dolls for around $100 each with no accessories, sometimes no clothes at all. On Craigslist, I found a few for about $70, but they were so popular that the owners never got back to me.
In other words, these magical creatures basically don’t depreciate. Ever. Like gold, indeed.
Throwing a Hail Mary, I posted on Facebook to see whether any of my 20-something friends had outgrown their beloved Kit or Molly. A brown-skinned Josefina, Kaya or Melody would be even better.
One college buddy helpfully shared an article rating the “betchiness” of each model: “Sam is undoubtedly the betchiest of all the American girl dolls for a variety of reasons [not least among them that she] rocks … an outfit specifically for catching butterflies.” My old roommate referred me to a recent New Yorker piece about an imaginary Trump line of dolls: “Meet Angela! Angela is a real American girl from the nineteen-fifties, a time when America was truly great. She’s an energetic and optimistic girl who follows her heart instead of the crowd, and also she has huge breasts and a tight little a–.”
Then things got serious. My mother’s divorce lawyer’s wife offered up her college-aged daughter’s old dolls. Despite her warning that “they are not in good-enough shape to pass for a Christmas present,” I greeted the news as the coming of the rapture. With a few touch-ups, a second life for these babies would be sure to enchant my own.
In the following 24 hours, my youngest’s godmother texted an offer to buy her a doll, a colleague scoured the internet for deals, and both a college friend and our neighbor from across the street reported leads on the dolls their nieces had treasured.
Enter Santa. From an anonymous email address that even my techie husband couldn’t trace came the following missive: “I understand your eldest wants an American Girl doll. Which does she fancy? … Not sure what we have in the workshop.” A little back and forth produced shocking news: My 7-year-old would receive a brand new doll from our patron saint, plus miniature versions for the younger two.
What’s a skeptic to do?
The dolls still don’t fit with the vision of childhood I constructed after reading such books as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Simplicity Parenting, and it won’t ever sit right that most American parents don’t have an extended network with the means to facilitate holiday largesse. On the other hand, there must be something to these dolls to inspire such devotion.
When I set my cynicism aside, I can feel it: wonder drifting over me like softly falling snowflakes, settling on my shoulders and melting into my body. My kids will open a gift they think the powers that be would never indulge, and they will feel loved by a stranger. If one of those Craigslist parents responds, we’ll pay the magic forward, donating the same warmth to parents and children in need.
In another Christmas miracle, I get to take a break from managing the balance between my children’s wants and needs, to step away from responsibility and just enjoy the awe, mystery and bliss that social and religious ritual can create.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
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