Toy stories are now playing at a mall near you

At 6 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, several hundred parents and a scattering of grandmothers rush through the doors of Toys "R" Us. Sunrise is still nearly an hour away, and the thermometer registers a shivery 27 degrees, but no matter. They have come here on an urgent mission: to scoop up bargain toys during an early-bird sale.

Within minutes, blue shopping carts fill with everything from Karaoke Systems ($88) and Spider Man Deluxe Dual Action Web Blasters ($12.99) to Star Wars Electronic Lightsabers ($12.99) and Toots the Train ($24.99). Clutching coffee cups and sale fliers, determined shoppers maneuver through crowded aisles, sometimes consulting handwritten lists, sometimes simply grabbing items off the shelf.

For some, this predawn shopping spree constitutes a party of sorts. For others, such as a young father calling his wife at home on a cellphone, it symbolizes punishment. Asked if he has done this before, he grumbles, "No, and I really don't want to again, either." Bah, humbug.

A toy store represents a microcosm of all the good and not-so-good impulses of the holiday season. At its best, it exemplifies the love parents feel for their children, expressed in the gift of play. Yet it also illustrates the extent to which toys can dominate Christmas. One mother with a cart full of electronic games brags to her friend, "I never buy my kids clothes for Christmas. I want them to have fun." Another mother looks crestfallen when a clerk says, "We don't have any more Amazing Amys." Uh-oh. There goes Christmas.

Anyone who hasn't set foot in a toy store for a while will find surprises. The first is sticker shock. Signs around the store promise: "We've lowered the price of fun." But tell that to a shopper named Helen, mother of 11 and grandmother of 10. "How does anybody with three or four kids ever, ever have a decent Christmas anymore?" she asks, shaking her head. "Everything is so expensive."

And then there is size shock. Who put these toys on steroids? Barbie's Dream House, for example ("Doorbell really 'dings'! Real working elevator!") takes up nearly as much space as a playpen. No wonder American homes continue to grow bigger. Families need more room to store playthings.

Some things don't change. Toys are still color-coded by gender. Want something for girls? Just look for a sea of pink, purple, and turquoise. Boys' toys can be identified by packaging that is heavy on dark blues and black with slashes of red. The more menacing the designs, the better, it seems.

Every year, a child safety group, World Against Toys Causing Harm, lists the 10 most dangerous toys. Another group, the Lion & Lamb Project in Bethesda, Md., urges parents to avoid its "Dirty Dozen" list of most violent toys.

But beyond those culprits, there is something disconcerting about many other items in these gigantic emporiums, stacked to the ceiling with promises of fun. Have toy manufacturers ever produced more plastic or more passive activity? The Blitz Bumper Car ($49.99) brags that it is "100% Kid Powered." Fewer and fewer toys can make that statement. Old-fashioned kid-powered toys like Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinkertoys, and craft kits are clustered in a carpeted area called the Imaginarium, as if to signal that they belong to another world. It's the least-busy corner on this frenzied morning.

For Tracy Welch, a high school mathematics teacher, the quest for the perfect toy for her 7-year-old daughter ends as she triumphantly clutches a yellow object called SpongeBob SquarePants. Summing up the hopes of many parents, she says, "I want to be the best mother in the whole universe. This is going to do it." If only parenthood were that simple. Then, stacking a baby doll and other toys in her cart, Ms. Welch adds, "This is why we work every day."

But even gift-giving has its limits. Or should have, according to Helen. Surveying the contents of her cart as she waits in a long checkout line, she smiles and offers her philosophy of holiday giving, which may be good advice for any parent: "Our grandchildren don't get everything they ask for, ever."

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