History of Christmas Toys and Their Trends

Updated June 1, 2021
Girl playing with christmas train

While the social and physical landscape of today's world might not resemble anything like it did hundreds or thousands of years ago, some things have remained constant - like children's desire to play. In western civilization, Christmas traditions have embedded the importance of recreation for children into the yearly calendar. However, you might be wondering about the history of Christmas toys and how this practice of gifting children's toys first transformed into the custom people participate in today.

A History of Christmas Toys

Giving gifts has been a human tradition since antiquity. Ancient Romans used to exchange gifts on New Year's Day to celebrate the winter solstice. Yet, the idea that gift giving is an expression of love and affection is generally believed to be predominately associated with the spread of Christianity, as exemplified by the birth of Jesus Christ, where the three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As centuries passed and society grew increasingly secular, these gift-giving sentiments combined with folkloric legends surrounding Santa Claus. As Santa became known as a kind protector of children, it became customary to give children small toys to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Dolls, building blocks, stuffed animals, and board games were some of the popular gifts given during these earliest Christmas celebrations.

Catalogs and Department Shopping Change the Game

In the early 19th century, stores in the United States began to heavily advertise the Christmas shopping season. In 1841, a shop in Philadelphia attracted thousands of parents and children by displaying a life-size model of Santa Claus in its window, and shortly after, other retailers began adopting the tradition of hiring someone to dress up as Santa Claus for children to visit.

By the end of the 19th century, department stores like Macy's, Siegel-Cooper, and Harrods had infiltrated the cities around the western world, giving families easy access to new toys that they could purchase for their children. Similarly, rural families used mail-order catalogs like Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog, to receive their gifts in time for Christmas morning.

Girl hugging teddy bear at Christmas

Global Crisis and Post-War Prosperity Effect Gift Giving

Although many adults did - and still do - exchange gifts at Christmas, it should come as no surprise that most parents tend to view the holiday as a celebration for the children in their lives. Even during the Great Depression, parents did their best to ensure that their children would have a special Christmas, transforming their store-bought presents into homemade gifts. Stockings were filled with fruits like apples or oranges, and sweets like peppermint sticks or chocolate drops.

Yet, it wasn't until the post-war period in the mid-20th century when much of the west was on a road towards prosperity that the lavishness of modern Christmases began cropping up. With greater income and a global focus on consumerism, piles of toys underneath children's trees grew larger and larger.

Trends in Christmas Toy Choices

For retailers today, the Christmas season is the most important time of the year. Sales and promotions are generally scheduled to start on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, and run right up until Christmas Eve. Predicting which Christmas toys will be most in demand for a particular year is a process that often requires months of market research and lots of planning on the customer's part. Check out some of the toys from the past few decades that parents and children fought tooth and nail to bring home with them:

  • 1983 - Cabbage Patch Kids
  • 1985 - Teddy Ruxpin
  • 1989 - Game Boy
  • 1991 - Super Nintendo
  • 1995 - Beanie Babies
  • 1996 - Tickle Me Elmo
  • 1998 - Furby
  • 1999 - Pokemon Ephemera
  • 2000 - Razor Scooters
  • 2001 - Harry Potter merchandise
  • 2005 - Xbox 360
  • 2007 - Nintendo DS
  • 2008 - Nintendo Wii
  • 2010 - iPad
  • 2013 - Big Hugs Elmo
  • 2017 - Fingerlings
Little Boy Opening a Gift at Christmas Time

An Opportunity to Give to Others

Since Christmas is a time of giving, you shouldn't be limited to only giving toys to the children in your life; rather, charitable giving has been around for millennia, and there are a number of charitable organizations that could use your help to ensure that low-income children have a special surprise to look forward to on Christmas morning. For example, Toys for Tots, a project organized by the US Marine Corps, places collection bins at shopping malls and other public locations to gather new, unwrapped toys for needy children in the community. In many areas, the Salvation Army also organizes a large "toy drive" to provide a similar service. Many local civics organizations or religious institutions host "Angel Trees" where people can choose to purchase particular items for a family in need. Reach out to your community leaders to see what options are available in your area to continue this historic sense of good will.

Toys May Have Changed, but Children Haven't

The specific toys that kids add to their messily written Christmas lists might have changed from year to year, but their excitement never has. So, when you roam the aisles of your nearest toy store, think back to what your parents or grandparents might have asked for on their Christmas lists and get a sense of just how your family has changed in only one or two generations. After all, we're all only human and we all love to play.

History of Christmas Toys and Their Trends