In recent years a whole cadre of experts has sprung up to warn the world against the dangers of Christmas toys. The 10 most hazardous playthings on the market get duly listed. Each year at least one more book is written on the high risks lurking within those innocent-looking packages under the tree.
Nobody would wish a menacing toy upon one's own child, or anybody else's. But the idea of Christmas as a kind of booby trap (if you don't watch out) is certainly a dampener.
The toy experts have established themselves as holiday party poopers, second only to those other irrepressible experts who pop up about now to tell us cheerfully about exactly how many of their less buoyant fellow Americans are experiencing the ''Christmas blues.''
Fear is the great attention-getter of our times. The trouble with talking about danger is that it tends to become obsessive until a cautious person is putting double locks on his double locks.
If a toy is not all rounded edges, soft materials, and totally edible, it qualifies as sinister.
What object in this universe, strictly speaking, can satisfy our safety standards? We have defined the air we breathe, the water we drink, as more or less toxic. If one were to believe our diet faddists, most food is not safe to put in the mouth, to say nothing of playthings.
How can a mere boy be less than slightly hazardous?
One can easily imagine a Woody Allen character as Chief Toy Inspector General , scrupulously finding a danger in every single toy manufactured until no toys at all are allowed on the market and children have to go back to playing with Mommy's kitchen knives and Daddy's parking brake.
Before we knew how dangerous toys (and everything else) could be, how blithely everybody played! Children on farms romped around on horses with sharp-edged hooves that would never pass any safety tests. For hide-and-seek, they climbed rickety ladders at improbably steep angles into certifiably ramshackle haylofts. In the summer they dived into rock quarries. Slingshots were standard equipment.
The dangerous-toy experts ought to be horrified by history. But if we're going to get into history, it should be pointed out that yesterday's children did not have those unsafe-at-any-speed objects known as automobiles hurtling past, inches away from the sidewalks on which today's children play with their safety-guaranteed toys.
Above all, yesterday's children were free from that highest of risk factors, The Bomb. There is a certain lack of perspective in our solicitous concentration on the danger of playthings in a world stockpiled with enough megaweapons to blow up the whole enterprise, down to the last toy factory.
But even if we choose to confine this theme of children's danger to toys, we encounter a serious omission. The menace-testers are judging only by physical properties. If a Super-Rat-a-Tat Zap gun can satisfy the no-sharp-edges criterion, it will be stamped benign, even though the mental hazards to small boys playing at violent make-believe ought to be considered as well.
Still, the search for safety misses the point - no matter how it is conducted - if the searchers assume that earthly existence can be made fail-safe by sufficient exercise of care and prudence. In the end, such unjustified hopes only worsen the fears that hide just behind them.
There is a special sadness when toys and fear become partners. Children at play constitute one of the scenes in life that transcend anxiety, for the children, and for the adults who watch.
It would be a shame if, in the enforcement of reasonable precautions, we adults got carried away and turned play into its fear-contaminated opposite.
After all, the exuberant pleasure of an infant shaking its rattle in its playpen should be the model for us careworn spectators, not the other way around.