Ask anyone about their childhood Christmas memories, and there's likely to be a special Christmas morning gift that springs to mind. For me, it was the giant box I saw under the tree with my name on it when I was about 7 years old. As I remember it, the gift — which had been delivered from my aunt, who lived out of state — sat under the tree for days and days and days. As my mom tells it, the gift was likely only there for a few hours. I still remember how excited I was to rip off the wrapping paper and discover a Barbie hairstyling and makeup head.
My daughters remember opening various video games and consoles over the years, which were exciting because they promised hours of fun over the following no-school days as they played their new games. My mom recently told me her most memorable childhood gift. She wanted a Barbie Dreamhouse, which was too expensive for Santa to afford. Instead, on Christmas morning, she opened a beautiful replica of a Barbie Dreamhouse that my grandma had painstakingly handmade for her out of cardboard boxes, paint, wooden dowels and plastic wrap.
Toy store owners have those memories too, and they often have them in mind around this time of year when they stock their shelves with the toys that will become children's Christmas morning memories.
Board games and family traditions
Gordon Lugauer, owner of Board Game Barrister, often extols the virtues of board games to encourage family togetherness. Appropriately, his favorite childhood gift is related to both games and family.
When Lugauer was in middle school, he was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player. He also loved reading a series of D&D novels, which featured an inn where characters would gather and eat together.
"That Christmas, I received a cookbook that had recipes that were meant to be dishes that were served at the inn," said Lugauer. "It was so fun to read, and I was at an age where I was just starting to cook things, so I made a number of the recipes.
"One of the recipes was for a stew, and it's become a staple holiday meal that my mom makes every year. She's made it for something like 35 years by this point."
As far as games for holiday gifts, Lugauer said "it's a great year for party games." Here are some of his favorites.
Wavelength: Lugauer said this game is similar to uber-popular game Codenames in that teams are giving each other clues to try to "read each other's minds" to figure out a word. The twist in this game is that the clues have to be on a spectrum between two concepts, like hot or cold or sci-fi and fantasy.
Connec'Team: In this game, cards with words are placed on the table. The players then look at their own cards to see which of their words seem to be connected to the first words. After all the cards are played and the connections are built, players team up to see if they're thinking of the same word. Lugauer said "it's like a mind meld. It's a fun game to play."
Confident?: Lugauer said this is one of his favorite party games. "It's a trivia game where no one knows the real answer." Teams are asked questions where a number is the answer like "How many teeth does a T-Rex have?" The trick is that each team answers not with a specific number, but with a range. "As long as the correct answer is in the range, you get a point so you can play it totally safe and give wide ranges," said Lugauer. "But, if the answer is in your team's range and that's the narrowest range guessed, you get bonus points." "
Fun Facts: This is a cooperative game best played with people who know each other well or people who are getting to know each other. "Everyone is asked a question about themselves, like on a scale of 1 to 100, how grumpy are you if you don't get enough sleep?" explained Lugauer. "Then everyone has to decide if their answer is higher than lower than the other players, and when everyone's answers are in a line, they're revealed to see if you got the correct sequence."
Exuberant Christmas mornings and exciting toys
Natasha Loos and her husband Zach own Cedarburg Toy Company. They both have what Natasha describes as "elated, exuberant" Christmas morning memories.
Loos said her husband was 7 or 8 when he was hoping for an Optimus Prime Transformer and was moved almost to tears when the toy was under the tree on Christmas morning. And she was about the same age when she wanted a Cabbage Patch doll.
"That was the year Cabbage Patch was all the rage," said Loos. "My parents didn't have a lot of money and they were so hard to get, so I wasn't sure I would get one, but when I saw it under the tree, I was like, 'that's gotta be it,' and as soon as I opened it, I was so elated."
Here's what Loos is recommending for toys this holiday season.
Pokémon cards: "Pokémon is just so flipping hot," said Loos. "We've got some amazing box sets that I know kids who are lucky enough to get them will be like, 'oh my goodness!' They'll definitely evoke that emotional reaction."
Playmobil sets: Cedarburg Toy Company carries several Playmobil sets, including everything from wild animals to fairies and unicorns to knights and castles. Loos said several of the sets are on display as well so people can see what's in the box — although Loos also admitted she and her husband like opening the boxes and setting up the displays because they enjoy playing with the toys so much.
Crafting kits: "A lot of people think of our store as being for younger kids, but I love when we get something the big kids can do and the adults can do too," said Loos. "I'm really excited about our new crafting and sewing kits. They're so beautiful, and you can keep them for yourself or give them away as gifts."
Memories of classic toys and some suggestions
Maria Luther, owner of The Smiley Barn in Delafield, remembers the Christmas she received one of her favorite toys. "It was a Lite Brite. I know it's been around for many years, it's a classic, but kids still enjoy it," said Luther. "That was the happiest memory for me."
Luther predicts these toys will provide happy memories for children.
Tonie Box: "It's an audio player that you put hand painted figurines on top of the box, they have magnets and a satisfying click. Each figurine plays songs, stories or both. Children love that," said Luther. "Last year, the Tonie Box was popular, but it's picking up steam now because some of these figurines have become quite collectible."
Shashibo: "It's a cube that's the size of a baseball. It opens up into 70 different shapes. It has a satisfying fidget toy aspect, but it's also a puzzle and it has magnets in it," said Luther. "And you can buy more than one and put them together and make even more shapes."
Plasma balls: "These are classic and have been around for a long time. They're the clear plastic spheres with an electric current. When you put your fingertips on the outside, you see an arc of electricity come up to your fingers," said Luther. "They're fascinating for a broad age range. Even adults enjoy them on their desks."
Snow molds: "They're more intricate and complex than you typically see so you get a little more fancy when you're sculpting your snow castles," said Luther. "These are not just about making bricks; they're about making more complicated or intricate structures."
Bittersweet memories and comforting toys
Christmas mornings are often happy, but sometimes the toys don't live up to our hopes and dreams. That was the case one year for Matt Poulson, co-owner of Wauwatosa's Ruckus and Glee.
"I always had Christmas with my cousins, and they always got the best toys," said Poulson. "One year stands out where my cousin got a handheld electronic football game, and I spent most of the day looking over his shoulder watching him play. By the end of the day, I had only gotten to play it once."
Although Poulson says his envy was misplaced because he got a lot of good Christmas presents over the years, it is true that in his words, "Christmas can be bittersweet."
When moments aren't as happy as we want them to be, we often search for comfort; Poulson sees that trend in many of the toys that are popular for this holiday season.
"A lot of the toys that became popular during COVID deal with comfort and things to make people feel comfortable," said Poulson. "Kids have had it pretty rough, and we've seen an increase in the purchasing of things like stuffed animals and fidgets."
Anirollz: "Soft and squishy stuffed animals are big. These are cute and funny, they're usually rolled into a ramen noodle or soup package or something like that," said Poulson. "They're great for room decor and for something to sleep on too."
Slugz Fidget: "Fidgets are still big. This one makes a really neat clicking sound when you play with it," said Poulson. "A lot of the Youtubers and Tiktokers who are into ASMR like these because they make a really neat soft clicking sound."
If you go
Mayfair Mall location: 2500 N. Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa; at the northwest mall entrance, next to Macy's on the first floor
Bayshore location: 5789 N. Bayshore Drive, Glendale, next to the Cheesecake Factory
W62 N583 Washington Ave., Cedarburg
2420 Milwaukee St., Delafield
805 N. 68th St., Wauwatosa
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee toy store owners share the best toys for Christmas