Santa Claus is dead. The guy we see with the white beard and the red suit is an impostor, probably some heinous underworld figure who clubbed the real Santa Claus over the head, disposed of the jolly old body, donned the famous red suit, and craftily pursued a plan to destroy the world ever since. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there are some clues.

Maybe it was around 1983, when that woman’s leg got broken in a fierce toy-store riot over Cabbage Patch Kids — such scenes were commonplace that year as parents everywhere fought tooth and nail for those pug-faced, smushy cloth dolls, each packaged with its own birth certificate so the child can “adopt” it. They are not nearly as popular now since Cabbage Patch birth parents began to surface and fight prolonged legal battles for custody of their cloth offspring. The real Santa never would have allowed that to happen, but it’s just the sort of scheme that his evil impostor would dream up.

I love Christmas and I love to toy shop, but something has changed. I was shocked the first time I was in a Hallmark store that had Christmas stuff and Halloween stuff out at the same time. I bought a little plastic Santa Claus that said “Boo.” Now I expect to hear Christmas music in stores in September. No other shopping seasons are handled that way. If they were, “back-to-school season” displays would be out before the school year ended. {publish-page-break}

I checked out the stock at my local Toys ‘R’ Us, the Puzzle Zoo, and a variety of toy catalogs, and there’s definitely a plot afoot to suck the brains from an entire generation. I’m especially worried that our girls are going to be lost down a mysterious pink hole somewhere toward the end of the Barbie aisle. The box of the Dream Phone game, for example, says, “Guess who likes you in this talking telephone game.” And we wonder why girls grow up with appallingly low self-esteem and amazingly limited political power. The Sealed With a Kiss game, which advertises itself as a “kiss collecting game with a real kiss stamper for lip-stamping fun,” is probably not responsible for a lot of increased SAT scores, either.

Boys don’t fare much better. Any discarded piece of plastic that a toy manufacturer can equip with a gun or a sword is likely to end up in your boy’s collection of Christmas loot. Each Star Wars figure from Hasbro (recommended for ages 4 and up) includes a weapon for “action play.” As a young adult, I enjoyed Star Wars as much as the next guy, but if that’s appropriate for a 4-year-old, then why not go all the way and market The Deer Hunter action figures?

Our kids are still being smothered in anything bearing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers name. They are popular characters on television who start out as annoying people and, when danger is about, can turn into annoying people in spandex. If I were interested in giving birth, had a loving marriage, a comfortable income, a home with a yard, a good sense of self, and time to devote to raising another child, I would still turn to my husband and say, “Honey, let’s just wait for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers craze to die out entirely.”

Each year, between 5,000 and 6,000 new toys are introduced onto the U.S. market. This is accomplished largely by taking games we already have and adding sounds, as in Back Alley Street Hockey “with electronic street hockey sounds” or Electronic Karate Fighters “with realistic karate sounds!” Soon we’ll have Clue with actual blood samples and Mystery Date with real hurt feelings.

Other games take time-honored diversions and add unnecessary parts. Tabletop Hangman is in stores now; next year we’re likely to see battery-operated Hide and Seek. The concept of “trainer” versions of toys must pad the toy count, too. Take, for example, the Pooh Soft Friends Piglet, which advertises itself as “Baby’s first huggable toy.” I was under the sad impression that a good huggable toy could last a lifetime, but apparently it’s something you have to work your way up to.

Another trick to introducing a “new” toy is simply to copy one that already exists. I came across something called Totally Tangled. It’s a dark day when one has to lift the concept of the old Twister game in order to make a buck. The original “Ho-ho-ho, who wouldn’t go” guy would never have tolerated plagiarizing “left foot red.”

Toys ‘R’ Us also carries something called Baby Magic baby lotion. Now there’s a nice gift. Is it the first choice of articulate-but-dry babies or a stocking stuffer for pregnant teens?

I almost bought a Creative Craft weaving loom set for my 5-year-old foster daughter. I had been looking for one for a long time. But there on the back of the box it said, “Pot holders not recommended for oven use.” Tell me that’s not a clue that something’s rotten at the North Pole.

If anyone finds a dead fat guy in their backyard who looks as if he recently lost possession of his jolly old soul, that would absolutely confirm my theory.