Noel, and no "AAA," either

'Tis the season of gift-giving, a time of joy and peace and so much warmth that you can roast your chestnuts if you're not careful. Only one phrase adequately sums up the holiday spirit for parents everywhere: "Batteries not included."

That's right, ladies and ye merry gentlemen. No matter how well you've planned, somewhere in that pile of gilt-wrapped gifts is a toy that will sit inert on Christmas morning because it doesn't have batteries. Even if you took special pains to avoid battery-powered toys (and, boy, the folks at Eveready hate to hear that), some relative has sent your children a race car or a laser gun or a virtual pet that needs 47 AAA batteries.

If you look in every drawer in your house, under the seats of your car and in your neighbors' homes, you won't come up with enough batteries to make this gizmo go. You'll think about stealing the batteries out of the TV remote, just to get the kid to stop caterwauling over a toy that is essentially a paperweight. (A word of advice: Don't rob from the remote. Some things are sacrosanct. And there's a lot of televised football coming up.)

When our children were younger, we followed the wisdom of the experts who say simpler toys encourage children to use their imaginations. These experts recommend versatile playthings like Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and Legos. Noisy, battery-operated toys that only do one thing are strictly verboten because children quickly become bored with them.

This is good advice, but there are two problems the so-called experts don't address:

1. Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys don't pick themselves up when the kids are done with them. They pose hazards to bare feet and eventually become dog kibble.

2. Grandparents.

No matter how well-intentioned the parents, grandparents are the wild card. They'll buy anything, the louder and more annoying, the better. Grandparents know they're not the ones who'll be around when the kids crash the remote-control police car with "real live siren howl" into the walls again and again. No, it'll be the parents who are awake in the middle of the night, stealthily removing the batteries to give their frayed nerves a break.

At our house, it all began with a little pink dog. When our older (and, at that time, only) son was two years old, my parents shipped him a fuzzy pink dog that ran on, as I recall, 83 batteries. The dog would walk forward, rear up on its hind legs, open its mouth and go "yap, yap, yap." Then it would start the process all over again. Our son loved this toy more than any of the educational toys we purchased. He ran it day and night -- "yap, yap, yap" -- until I thought my head would explode.

That one took care of itself. My son decided the pink dog needed a bath, so he dumped it in the toilet. We cleaned the dog and dried it and (against our better judgment) put in new batteries. But after its swirling swim, the dog was mute. It still would walk and rear up and its little mouth would open and close. But the only sound was the grinding of its gears. Its yapper was ruined forever.

I secretly offered up prayers of thanks every time I laid eyes on the dog.

After this adventure, we encouraged my parents to avoid such toys. Their reply? A diabolical "heh-heh-heh."

Every year, they send at least one gift that needs many batteries and makes a variety of whizbang noises you can hear all over the house.

The topper was the Christmas they gave both sons police cars that not only ran around, sirens blaring, but would stop occasionally, raise up on a hidden pedestal, sprout wings and whirl in place, screaming all the while. It was as if your friendly neighborhood patrol car had bred with the Batmobile.

Fortunately, the experts are right. After a week or two, the kids lose interest in these toys and go back to their make-believe world, where they provide their own screaming. Or, the batteries die.

Take my advice: You, too, can "forget" to buy new batteries until these gadgets end up dead and silent in the bottom of the toy box.

If that doesn't work, there's always the toilet.

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