Christmas 2010 is already being called the year of the iPad, with gift givers wrapping up thousands of the shiny Apple tablets. Of course, the iPad is just part of a Christmas tradition that's nearly as old as drunken holiday parties and mistletoe: The "it" toy. Here are eight from Christmases past:
1. Etch A Sketch, 1960
French electrician Andre Cassagner came up with the idea for a children's drawing toy using aluminum powder in the late 1950s. After some convincing, Ohio Art Company purchased the rights and began producing the toy and advertising it on television in 1960 — one of the first toys to be marketed on the tube. The response was so overwhelming that the company was forced to keep manufacturing the toys right up until noon on Christmas Eve to fulfill orders. This year, kids can opt for a high-tech version in the form of an Etch A Sketch iPad case.
2. NERF Ball, 1970
Introduced to the public in 1970, the "world's first official indoor ball" was the "big seller" that Christmas. Sellers initially questioned the potential of a simple four-inch foam ball — albeit one that came with a promise not to break lamps or windows — but their doubts were assuaged when customers bought a whopping 4 million that year.
3. Pet Rock, 1975
The invention of a California advertising exec, the Pet Rock was an "utterly useless product," says Steve Burgess at Minyanville, though it did come with an amusing 36-page booklet detailing how to care for it. The lumpy pet flew off store shelves at $4 a pop, earning inventor Gary Dahl millions. Its reign, however, was short-lived. By Valentine's Day, "the Pet Rock was over," Burgess says.
4. Cabbage Patch Kids, 1983-1985
Although sales of the cuddly dolls peaked in 1985, they also dominated the gift season in 1983 and 1984. The dolls are "no longer simply hot-selling toys," said John S. DeMott and Rosemary Byrnes in a December 1984 issue of Time. This is an "American social milestone." That year, Cabbage Patch Kids sales reached $1 billion, creating a nationwide shortage that left thousands of wannabe doll owners on Toys 'R' Us waiting lists.
5. Game Boy, 1989
Nintendo's first handheld device was a holiday hit, selling over a million units its first Christmas. In the decades since, more than 100 million have been sold. "To this day," it and "Tetris" — the geometric puzzle game included with purchase — "fills people of a certain age with an overwhelming desire to stack rectangles," says Sean Cunningham in Esquire.
6. Pogs, 1991
Inspired by a game Hawaiian dairy workers played with milk caps, Pogs were the unlikely hit of the year. Children collected the cardboard circles imprinted with various colorful designs, and got to work stacking them and slamming them with a thicker disc. The winner got to add the loser's pogs to her collection. The toy was eventually banned in schools because it was considered too similar to betting.
7. Tickle Me Elmo, 1996
Stores sold out of the $30 doll weeks before Christmas, leading some entrepreneurial elves to put ads in newspapers offering to part with their dolls for a mere "$1,000 or best offer." They might as well be called "Try and Find Me Elmo," said Dan Barry in The New York Times.
8. Sony Playstation 3, 2006
Sony rolled out the "long-awaited successor to [what was then] the world's most popular video-game system," the PS2, just in time for the holidays. Predictably, a frenzy ensued, with video-game addicts and their moms camping out for days to buy the $599 devices. "Legend has it" that one man in line for a PS3 at Walmart was so desperate to get one he spiked the coffee of those in front of him with laxatives. Others resorted to picking up pre-sale units on eBay for a mere $3,000.