For the kids

Frostbite, Chinese toys, and the dangers, err joys, of celebrating the holidays with children

Santa works hard and plays hard. “Hey man, Happy Howladaze!”

Santa works hard and plays hard. “Hey man, Happy Howladaze!”

Photo By Shoka

For a long, long stretch of my adult life, the closest I came to getting in the holiday spirit was the year my brother traveled 2,500 miles to California. We spent whole damn rainy day in a bar on the corner of my street playing pool. “Murry Crismash, bro. I love you man.”

Then I had kids, who don’t care about all the hang-ups you have about your dysfunctional Crismashes past. They just want toys.

For example, my 9-year-old won’t openly talk about the fact there’s no Santa Claus. I don’t know exactly when he became a disbeliever, but one day I could just tell that he’d lost faith. He’s a very cool customer, however, and never flaunted that he’d blown the lid off the whole Santa sham. Perhaps, after nearly a decade with us, he figures that even failed anarchists can get a little squirrelly sometimes. If we know he knows, he knows we might just call the whole thing off.

And that would mean no toys. So, an uneasy sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy persists.

On the other hand, his little brother is quite vocal about his feelings for Santa: He’s against St. Nick. Last year, he asked if Rudolph could bring in the toys while Santa waited in the sleigh. “I don’t want him to come in the house,” he explained. Apparently the jolly old elf gives my toddler the creeps.

But so as long as each of them bravely continues to go through the motions, so must we. Figure in the nieces and nephews, the friends’ kids, the various toys-for-tots type obligations, and some amount of time in Target or Toys “R” Us is unavoidable. But it can be managed and minimized.

There are some good local independent toy stores that vary a bit from corporate mold. Two stand-outs are Alphabet Moon in Davis (235 F Street, (530) 757-2142) and Toys That Teach in Rancho Cordova (12401 Folsom Boulevard, No. 209; (916) 351-9093; Both places are great for educational toys and games, along with the tried-and-true kids stuff, from building blocks to boomerangs.

For the Waldorf crowd, there’s an interesting local Web site, A Toy Garden (, which focuses on environmentally friendly toys and toys that stress imaginative play over the usual Disneyfied fare. As a bonus, the proprietor told SN&R that the toys are “90 percent China free.” A Toy Garden is based in Fair Oaks, but doesn’t have an actual retail store. You can, however, still choose to pick up your order in person to save on shipping costs.

There’s another spot, in Old Sacramento, that’s worth a visit—perhaps for yourself as much as for your kids. G Willikers Toy Emporium in Old Sacramento (1113 Front Street, (916) 447-1091, specializes in “old fashioned toys.” As you might expect in an old fashioned toy store, there is an enormous selection of model railroading gear—from the big-ticket trains and tracks, down to the little packets of fall foliage for your tiny trackside trees. There’s also an extensive supply of slot cars and slot-car gear, and shelves full of old school wind-up robots, for all you wind-up robot connoisseurs.

I also learned that “old fashioned” begins a bit more recently than I imagined—judging by the vintage Star Trek phasers and communicators and the Donnie and Marie Osmond dolls straight from the 1976, all still in the box.

Which brings me back to all the happy-holiday memories I hope my kids—bless their cynical, freaked-out little hearts—will have when they grow up. I think one of the fondest will be the Garvin tradition of hunting and killing our own Christmas tree.

US National Forests—of which there are several just a short drive from here—allow you to cut down your own Christmas tree for the cost of filling the tank and a $10 permit. The program helps cut down on the kind of small, spindly undergrowth that leads to bad forest fires in the summer. So, you’re actually helping the health of the forest. At least I think that’s true, and I’m not about to do any research that might contradict it.

Even figuring in the cost of gas, you’ll always get a better deal than the Christmas tree lot. The tree may not be perfectly formed, like one of those farm deals, but nothing beats the satisfaction of sharing time with the kids in the forest, stalking the blue spruce with a fold-up saw and a pair of loppers.

There are dangers, of course. Some cheapskates don’t bother getting a permit—which can cost you $500 in fines and up to six months in jail. Others are jerks about it, and cut down trees growing in off limits areas, or “top” big trees, leaving the trunks and lower branches to die and become kindling in the summer. These practices are bad karma and again can result in hefty fines.

And there’s always the possibility of a full-blown Christmas tree ordeal, like the one suffered last year near here by one dad and his three teenaged kids. They went off into the woods near Paradise looking for the perfect tree right before a big blizzard blew in. You remember what happened next: The family was lost for three days and had to be treated for frostbite and dehydration after they were eventually found by a helicopter crew. So, getting lost, frostbite and a little bit embarrassed is a real possibility. But at least it’ll be a Christmas the kids will never forget.