It is easy to get caught up in the madness of crowds. This page found itself in a toy shop exactly a week ago after hearing reports of parents panic-buying toys. Once the on-the-scene reporting was done and dusted, the page found itself panic-buying toys and, before anyone could say, "There are still 81 sleeps until Christmas," there we were standing in line like a gombeen waiting to hand over more than €200 to a nice chap in Smyths.
Never mind Last Minute Man, the omnipresent festive clown who always leaves all present-buying until 5pm on Christmas Eve, putting themselves under enormous pressure and all but guaranteeing their loved ones rubbish presents. Pricewatch was First Minute Man.
For reasons that anyone who has ever had a child or who has even been a child will probably instantly understand, we can say no more, now or ever, about what was in our arms. But as we left the shop, we couldn’t help but wonder what in the name of the little baby in the crib we were going to do with the things we had just bought, how we might keep them out of view between now and Christmas, and whether or not anyone would have any interest in them whenever they eventually see them.
We were not acting alone; it was the same toy story across the country, with Barbie queues forming in shops big and small as parents reacted nervously to news that the country was heading towards Level 5 of the Government's plan for Living With Covid – a name, incidentally, which sounds like a hideously grim sequel to the popular Virgin Media Television series fronted by the lovely Lucy Kennedy.
As it turned out, Level 5 was averted – at least for now – and the shops will stay open. But the panic was real and a reminder to everyone of the need to be more organised this year.
And that is why we are unapologetically starting our Christmas coverage today, weeks before Halloween, with a parental primer which hopefully might help reduce anxiety in the weeks ahead.
We should point out that when it comes to Christmas morning, everything will still be taken care of by Santa Claus. He has been self-isolating since last January and – in any event – is entirely immune to Covid-19, as are all his elves. That means presents will come as they always do and Santa and his reindeer will need to be fed in houses across Ireland as they always are.
However, it is possible that some parents might like to supplement the work going on in the North Pole right now, while family and friends cut adrift from each other for too long might want to buy presents ahead of time too.
But what to buy is always a big question. Generally speaking, it is always a good idea to wait until late in the season to be jolly as there are none so fickle as little folk. Leaving it late also means you have had a chance to watch The Late Late Toy Show to get a sense of the things that people might want. But this year, a year like no other, there will be no crowds rushing into toy shops on December 23rd. Shops will not allow such pandemonium and shoppers probably won’t much fancy it either. And the Toy Show won’t be on for weeks yet so we are starved of that peerless guidance too.
Companies such as Amazon, Argos and – closer to home – Smyths don't get to be the size they are without knowing a thing or two about consumer behaviour and without being able to make a reasonable stab at what people are likely to buy each year, which is why we turned to them for advice.
The people at Smyths Toys reckon Paw Patrol, Pokémon and LOL Surprise will be among its top sellers this year, as well as new releases from classic brands such as Monopoly, Barbie, WWE and Lego.
The time we've been spending at home has generated a strong sense of nostalgia for our favourite toys
"We have some cool characters, from LOL Remix and Pokémon to Mario and The Child, as well as our exclusive Wrekkin' Slambulance, as seen live on WWE last week," says Sinead Byrne, joint head of marketing at Smyths.
She reckons the Slambulance will be the number one toy this season followed by the Pokémon Carry Case at number two, with Star Wars Mandalorian The Child Animatronic taking the bronze medal position. After that there will be the LOL Surprise! OMG Remix 4-in-1 Plane and the Barbie Princess Adventure Prance & Shimmer Horse to round out the top five.
Argos also announced its top toy predictions for 2020 last week, and among the toys it expects to feature on children's Christmas lists this year are a Lego Lamborghini, a flamingo that sits on the toilet and poos (yay!) a dancing unicorn and the animatronic doll of "The Child" from Disney's The Mandalorian – which people in the know know as Baby Yoda.
“The time we’ve been spending at home has generated a strong sense of nostalgia for our favourite toys,” a spokeswoman said. “Half of parents reminisced about their old toys at some point during the nationwide lockdown and, as a result, 22 per cent plan to gift their child something that conjures memories of their own childhood this Christmas.”
She said that, as a result, “franchises that have stood the test of time make several appearances on the Argos top toy rundown, combining classic choices with something fresh and modern.”
Nintendo and Lego, both of which have maintained their popularity for several generations, have collaborated to release the Lego Adventures with Mario Starter Course, which has a price tag of about €54 and offers children – and indeed adults – the chance to recreate the iconic platform games in physical form, collecting coins and squashing enemies.
There is also the Present Pets Fancy Puppy interactive plush pet toy assortment with over 100 sounds and actions, the Lego Super Mario starter set, Monopoly Sore Losers and Paw Patrol Dino Rescue Dino Patroller motorised team vehicle with Chase & T-Rex.
Over at Amazon, a list of presents for different age groups was drawn up, with Barbie, Minecraft, Star Wars, Lego and LOL Surprise dolls all making an appearance as well that Baby Yoda thing.
For children under the age of two, it suggests a Dyson Toy vacuum and the Lego Disney Princess Ariel's Undersea Castle.
Kids aged between three and four will be – the website says – in the market for Little Live Pets Gotta Go Flamingo (again, yay!) and Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box. There is also the FurReal Poopalots Big Wags interactive pet toys. And, in case you are wondering (and we were), they are “realistic toy pets” who do exactly what it says in the box. Amazon predicts the special child in your life will love this dog that they will need to feed, walk and clean up after, “preparing them for a real-life furry companion”. Hmm.
Amazon's top toys for boys and girls aged between six and eight are the Baby Yoda, the Barbie Fashionista dolls, and the Think Fun Gravity Maze, while kids aged between nine and 11 might do well to get the National Geographic Earth Science Kit, a collection of more than 15 no-fuss science and STEM experiments to do at home, from creating water tornadoes or an erupting volcano to growing a crystal.
There is also a Fleece quilt kit – a no-sew DIY kit to create a super-soft fleece blanket.
For those over the age of 12 there is the Friends TV series Monopoly. “Could this game BE any more fun? This Monopoly board with a Friends twist features properties like Central Perk and tokens like Monica’s chef’s hat and Phoebe’s guitar,” the site says .
There is also a Throw Throw Burrito game which, we are told , is the “hottest card game [and] involves throwing soft foam burritos at each other.
Once the presents are sorted, there will then be the Santa visits to work out. SantaOnline.ie is a clever response to the Great Unplesantness and promises to bring the big man into your home – at least in a virtual sense. Think Zoom work meeting, only with more Ho-Ho-Hos.
Families will be able to book a day and a time for a virtual meeting with Santa at prices which start at €15 per child. They will then get a confirmation email from the North Pole via SantaOnline.ie and a link. A gift will arrive in the post prior to the moment of Zoom.
We would usually have 150 people working on over 30 Christmas events and experiences at this time of the year
When the time comes, parents will follow the link and Santa will appear on the computer screen and talk to their loved ones in the intimate setting of their own home.
The people behind the concept are a company by the name of ThinkNBlink, which in Christmases past had grottoes across the country for clients such as Tesco, Ikea, Liffey Valley Shopping Centre and the Square Town Centre in Tallaght.
"We would usually have 150 people working on over 30 Christmas events and experiences at this time of the year," says Graham Carroll of ThinkNBlink. "So, we have taken all that knowledge and brought it online."
The company will also be donating a euro of every booking to Laura Lynn and has also set it up so that grandparents and immune-comprised people who may be cocooning will also be able to simultaneously join in on the visit and it can be recorded on your device.
Of course, the Santa visit will not have to be entirely virtual; there are other alternatives, although many will depend on people being able to travel outside of their county, something which is, sadly, not a given at the time of writing.
Rathwood in Co Carlow has long hosted one of the most popular Santa grottoes in Ireland, with prime slots booking out well in advance of December. Sitting on Santa’s knee in Carlow will be out this year for so many obvious reasons, so Rathwood devised what it says is “an original idea for these unusual times”.
On arrival families will be assigned a “secure pod” on the Rathwood Express and be brought on “a magical journey through a festive forest” where they will see Santa’s reindeer. The train will then enter a circus big top and families “will enjoy a magical show with Santa, Mrs Claus and the elves from the comfort of their family pod on the train.”
A socially distanced Santa will then greet family pods and each child will get that all-important gift.
Palmerstown House has also modified its Santa experience to reflect a changed world. A contactless system has been developed so families will not have to check in at reception and will instead present a barcode to Santa's helpers in the designated welcome zone. Families will travel in a bubble and, while they will be able to see other families, it will only be from a safe distance.
Then comes the Santa’s Express Christmas train which will travel through the grounds of Palmerstown House Estate to Santa’s Magical Manor. Each family will have their own space separated by perspex screens.
Santa will then greet small numbers of families together and there will be presents followed by a journey back to the North Pole Village by train. Tickets are priced from €21 for children and €15.50 for adults and infants and can be booked on santashouseexpress.ie.
The big reveal
Another thing to be aware of this year is storage. In times past, things which had to be shielded from some eyes could be bought much later in the season and stored in offices until the big reveal, or even left in car boots until the time came.
But now, with so few people in offices and many spare rooms turned into offices, and big trips into big urban centres in the days before Christmas not looking likely for many, parents will have to be cleverer than ever when it comes to storage.
With that in mind, now might be a good time to clear out a space in the attic, if you have such a thing. If you do the clearing out now rather than when you actually need it – be that in a week or 10 weeks – you will make things a whole lot easier for yourself. Or perhaps you have a shed that is full of junk. Once you can lock it securely and it is dry then it might work. Although bear in mind that criminals are always on the lookout for an opportunity.
Calling in favours of friends or family with more space and a less pressing need to keep things under wraps is another option. Or, if you are really stuck and have some pretty big things that need to be kept securely for a couple of months, you could hire a lock-up.
It may sound extreme but there are a whole lot of such services around the country, with many offering deals including 50 per cent discounts on the first month, meaning you could rent yourself something secure close to where you live for two months for about €100.
While we mentioned the two As of Amazon and Argos above, we are still all about shopping local and reckon people should do what they can to find local stockists of the gifts that might make their way under the tree this year. Finding toy makers and sellers online is not hard, and the local ones come with the advantage that they tend to be much easier to make contact with if things go wrong. But can we stress again the importance of shopping early this year. It may seem crazy but it is the best thing you can do.
If you are in the market for a trampoline or a swing set or climbing frames, or books or toys for children and adults and hobbyists, or games or pretty much anything fun you can think of, you will find it here.
A super cute site with a large array of toys and scooters and all the rest.
Just because it is one of the biggest toy shops on these islands, it doesn't make it less Irish than it was. It stock large ranges of all toys and operates a handy click-and-collect service if you are not keen on wandering the aisles.
An ever-increasing range of environmentally sound toys for all kids. Again, this is a site that eschews that easily breakable plastic stuff on the market.
Gorgeous little shop on Galway's Quay St that was always worth a browse in pre-Covid times. The actual shop is on the small side, but there are no space issues on the website. A shop full of wooden and traditional toys.
Gorgeous shop based in Ennis, absolutely stuffed with the cutest of presents from Ireland and elsewhere. Definitely worth a visit, if only in a virtual sense.
A new kid on the block, this site was born out of the ashes of Mothercare Ireland and is the only Irish stockiest of a wide range of developmental toys from the Early Learning Centre, making it an ideal starting point for parents of young children.