Can we establish some ground rules before we start?
At this time of year you will see a number of ‘Christmas presents in days gone by’ articles on various websites. They are usually ‘written’ by 19-year-old interns who type ‘best toys in 1950’ into Google and then list the results. They then dig into the archives for a sepia-tinted photograph of a happy family and a gaily decorated tree to illustrate their piece.
Old Gits Unite
I’m not going to do that. This is going to be a personal memoir. So, I can only go back to the early Sixties. However, I’m hoping other Old Gits will be able to plug the gaps with their own memories. Maybe we can go back a couple more decades together?
Please use the comments section below to share your memories of bygone Christmas mornings. Of unwrapping the latest Hornby loco, cooing at Barbie or choking on the sixpence your mother had hidden in the pudding.
If I don’t mention your favourite toy or festive tradition; apologies. It just means I personally didn’t receive / give said toy as a gift, or didn’t practice the tradition. We all do Christmas our own way after all. With three sisters I can also give an insight into what girls were looking forward to at Xmas. No gender bias here.
In this article we’ll go on a journey from wide-eyed childhood, to being the parent who has to overspend and on to the bemused grandfather who shakes his head at just how spoilt kids are today.
And they really are spoilt. It weren’t like that back in the day…..
Full employment, England won the World Cup, and the Beatles & Stones were rocking the planet. What a decade. We’ll gloss over the Kennedy assignation, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and horrendous civil rights issues.
As a child of the sixties, Christmas was a time of wonder, excitement, and black & white movies. It was also impossible to sleep on Christmas Eve whilst waiting for Santa. Or for Dad to finish the late shift. Oh, to be able to regain that sense of wonder and innocence.
Money in the bank
In the sixties it was still the tradition, in our family at least, that the kids would find an orange, apple, and shiny coins at the bottom of their stocking. If you tried to give kids shiny pennies nowadays they would probably have a hissy fit and demand to know where you’ve hidden the pre-paid debit card.
Get to the good stuff
Once the orange had been nibbled and coins deposited into the piggy bank (mine was actually a rabbit) it was time to dive under the tree and open the presents. After all, when you’re a kid Christmas is all about presents. Or, to be more specific, toys.
Some gems I remember from this golden decade include my first Action Man figure. Action Man was definitely the second best thing to happen in 1966. If it hadn’t being for the keen eyesight of a Russian linesmen it may have been the best. I had the deep sea diver model (of Action Man not Russian linesman) as well as the normal army character.
Does anyone else remember not being able to get the gun to stick in Action Man’s hand?
Thunderbirds are Go
I think the sixties was the real start of TV merchandising and, as the best programme on telly was Thunderbirds, it naturally followed I would want the spin-off toys. Santa was happy to oblige.
I had all the vehicles though Thunderbird 2 was my favourite. I also thought Virgil was the best character as I never liked Scott. He was much too flash and full of himself.
I was also a fan of Lady Penelope and her pink Rolls Royce. Which may explain my fixation for older women as I grew up….
I also remember having two pairs of Thunderbird pyjamas; one blue pair and one yellow in case you’re wondering, and being very jealous of a kid down the street who had an actual Thunderbirds hat.
The annual Christmas treat
It was also traditional to receive an annual or two. 1969 saw my first Roy of the Rovers book whilst top of my sister’s book chart was, I think, the Bounty Book for Girls.
In common with many other Old Gits I now spend a lot of my time in antique shops and on EBay searching for the toys and books I enjoyed when I was a kid. I’ve nearly completed a full run of Roy of the Rovers annuals.
Tech at Christmas – 1960s style
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t receive many tech gifts as a kid in the 1960s. I’ve been racking my brain, what’s left of it, to come up with techie toys. The best I can think off was the View-Master. I’m sue most Old Gits reading this will remember the plastic viewfinder with its reel of slides that were viewed in sequence. Some may even remember the Bakelite versions of the 1950s.
I recall most of the reels featured TV programmes, and I definitely remember enjoying a Man from U.N.C.L.E reel with Solo and Kuryakin in glorious technicolour.
As for other tech, I remember my eldest sister being delighted one Christmas with a red and cream Dansette record player. It could be carried anywhere though it certainly wasn’t light. Sound wasn’t great, it only had the one built-in speaker, but to kids discovering music it was awesome. And completely indestructible. It was passed down from sibling to sibling for years.
The seventies were a decade of abundance as I passed from childhood to adolescence. There were so many pressie highlights I think we should dive straight in…Let’s start with a 1970s style icon.
The Chopper bike
This design classic is feted and revered now and original bikes in good condition can sell for around a grand. Mine was bright orange and…..I hated it. I wanted a racing bike with drop handlebars.
My ungratefulness aside, the bike still did plenty of miles but, like the other kids who rode those mean machines, I had no idea how cool they would be considered in years to come.
Looking at the Chopper now it’s easy to see why they are so coveted. The shape, the gear shift, and the long banana seat simply look amazing. Truly art on wheels.
The icons just keep on coming
The Space Hopper. Possibly one of the most bizarre toy crazes ever but it swept the nation in the seventies. My youngest sister bagged the first one in the family one snowy Christmas (1977 if I had to guess) and the hopping fad continued well into the eighties.
I never saw the attraction myself. Though I did once work with a guy whose claim to fame was that he space hopped across the Pennines. Admittedly he was a bit strange, but a noble achievement nevertheless.
Board or bored games?
Board games were always popular. The big two of Monopoly and Cluedo were the favourites but at least one of us would receive a board game at Christmas which everyone then had to play later on. Usually in the convenient gap between Christmas Dinner and the Morecambe & Wise Show.
Do kids still enjoy playing board games? I don’t know. But, knowing the attention span and boredom threshold of the average teen and under, I suspect not.
Other highlights of the 1970s
There were so many so I’ll rattle through them.
Continuing the TV merchandising theme from the 1960s, Captain Scarlett and his perpetual battle with the Mysterons was compulsive viewing for any kid in the seventies. I had all the action figures and when Santa dropped off a new Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle my happiness knew no bounds.
The SPV looked great but was a little short on action. Unlike the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle I got one year. The toy mirrored real life as Evel spent most of his time crashing and being thrown off his bike. The scale speed as he was propelled off the wind-up energiser must have been around 400mph. Great fun.
Hornby and Scalextric were always popular gifts at Christmas. I spent hours building layouts and racing model cars. I’m now attempting to relive my childhood with a train set in the shed. Unfortunately, everything gets dumped on top of it which, to be honest, was also the fate which befell my 1970s layout.
Scalextric required much more room but my dad and I used to build massive racing circuits. Though, I’m not sure either of us ever managed more than a couple of laps without the car flying off the track.
Meanwhile, the girls were playing with…..
Some of the popular girly stuff I remember vividly included a giant dolls head to which my sister liberally applied lipstick, blusher and any other cosmetic she could her hands on. The thing was hideous.
More arty Christmas gifts included Spirograph and Etch-a-Sketch. I never saw anyone produce anything which looked remotely like the elaborate designs seen on the Etch-a-Sketch TV ads. But, Spirograph was great and anyone could use it. Those little plastic wheels soon got lost though.
I remember one Christmas when Santa delivered a Stylophone. This little ‘musical’ instrument was a miniature keyboard operated by a stylus. It had a short shelf life, though I gather it’s recently being relaunched for some reason, though, to be fair, Amazing Grace sounded good on it.
It is probably best remembered by Old Gits as the toy promoted by Rolf Harris. YouTube footage of him surrounded by kids while playing the thing is frankly creepy and disturbing. Let’s move on…..
At some point during this tumultuous decade I became a father. The focus switched from receiving to giving. Though, it has to be said, the eighties were a pretty lame decade for toys. Actually, it was pretty lame all round to be fair.
As to which wonderful gifts I bestowed upon the little ‘uns at Christmas – I can’t for the life of me remember. Probably soft toys and some of those so-called ‘educational’ wooden activity centres. But, I do know for a fact it wasn’t a Cabbage Patch Kid. What on earth was all that about?
The first real American style toy craze to hit the UK, Cabbage Patch Kids were a ridiculous phenomenon. But seeing people completely lose their sanity over them was funny.
I’m going to leave the eighties behind and zoom into the nineties. With the kids getting older it was much more exciting time. Toys wise at least.
This was a strange decade, a mixture of tradition and new-fangled electronics. Homemade forts and farms to Furby and Tamagotchi, the 90s had it all. Including plenty of tech pressies.
Let’s look at the tech toys which proved such a hit with the kids of the nineties. Again, just a reminder, these were the toys I bought for my own kids so, if I don’t mention your favourite piece of nineties retro toy tech, tell us all about it in the comments section below.
The Sega Mega Drive was undoubtedly the big hit of the nineties. It certainly was in our house.
The console was constantly in action with wholesome family entertainment such as Golden Axe, Shinobi, and Streets of Rage being popular along with Sonic and X-Men. My personal favourite was Street Racer. An unlikely combination of go-kart racing and gratuitous violence. The kids enjoyed it.
Altogether gentler games included the Lion King and Pagemaster. I think all the games and the console are in the loft. I wonder if it still works?
The other tech hit of the decade was the Nintendo Game Boy. Looking back, it’s strange to think it had a mono display, but at the time it was revolutionary. For its size if nothing else. The little gadget was massively popular but I can’t remember any of the games apart from Pokemon. I think there were two different versions of the game but what the difference was I haven’t a clue.
A Little Pointless?
Tamagotchi. Now there was a thing.
The tiny electronic pet was a huge fad. It was also a massive stresser for parents. They were terrified the thing would die while they were supposed to be looking after it when the kids were at school. Needless to say the kids loved them and the battle was on to see how long the thing would survive for.
To finish the tech toys, the end of the nineties / early 2000s saw the release of the baffling, but cute, Furby. I’m not sure what he was supposed to be but his language skills were superior to mine. Apparently, the multi-lingual Furby was the first ‘robot’ to be sold in mass quantities.
By the way, Wikipedia reckons Furby ‘resembles a hamster or owl-like creature’. Which is probably right because hamsters and owls are virtually identical. As an aside, whilst out Chrimbo shopping this year I saw that Furby has been updated and is back on sale. “Ha”, I thought, “That will make a jokey gift for the daughter this Christmas”. Eighty quid! I moved on…..
Away from Tech
More traditional gifts included me trying to reintroduce old-fashioned values with homemade forts for the boys and a farm for my daughter. For a few years Christmas Eve night featured last minute hammering, sawing, and painting. A doll’s house even emerged one year.
It’s easy to see why homemade toys died out though. They are sooooooo much hassle. It’s a lot easier to just nip down to Argos. Speaking of which…..
Other well received toys included the inevitable Lego which, even in the 1990s, was so much more comprehensive and complicated than the few different coloured bricks I had when I was a kid. I remember buying Lego Pirate Ships and then taking until February to help the lads build the bloody things.
Television merchandising was hot in the nineties and popular toys in our household included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, WWF Wrestling, and My Little Pony. It seems every decade had its fair share of tacky crap.
Let’s leave the past and jump to the present day. What’s a grandad to do?
I have young grand kids to buy for yet they already seem to have everything and spend most of their time playing on their tablets.
Of course, kids have always been surrounded by toys. There was never a shortage of choice, unless you go back to the days of using a twig and sewing bobbing for trundling a hoop.
But, it seems nowadays kids are given so much more so much sooner.
Is it just me, or are most kids (and I accept there are bound to be some exceptions) so bombarded with gifts that toys are no longer cherished or looked after?
It seems once the excitement of ripping off the paper has ebbed the present is discarded, usually without even opening the box, and the next in the mountainous pile is attacked.
Or has it always been so?