Colette Sheridan: Toys tell their own stories whether in Auschwitz or under a tree

Over millennia, toy dolls have crossed continents and social classes - they were made from rags, sticks, porcelain and vinyl, writes Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: Toys tell their own stories whether in Auschwitz or under a tree

CHANGING TIMES: Barbie used to live in a single-storey house when Colette Sheridan was a child, now she has ten living areas!

FROM fake cigarettes that were tasty to chew, to rounds of toy bullets that sparked when you pulled the trigger of your brother’s life-like gun, emitting a smell of sulphur, toys from the childhoods of those of us of a certain age were definitely not politically correct.

Talk about gender normative. There was no way boys were going to plays with dolls, apart from Action Man. But the boys didn’t refer to Action Man as a doll. It was just one more toy that spelt extreme masculinity. And really, not a whole lot has changed.

Among the top toys for kids (girls, actually) this Christmas is Barbie Dream House Playset, which is a 43- inch doll house that offers an immersive playing experience. Barbie gets to live in a three-storey house with ten living areas.

That’s quite an upgrade on the single storey house belonging to the Barbie doll that I, my sister and a friend used to play with when we were small.

God, how we loved that doll, who had a boyfriend sans genitals called Ken and a friend, the flaxen-haired Sindy.

Our friend brought back this menagerie from overseas where her father worked as an engineer. Living abroad was glamorous enough, but to have access to the world of Barbie was pure heaven. Nobody else in our park had a proper Barbie.

We would spend hours conjuring up different scenarios for the dolls. There were even cars in which they could drive around. David Bowie would be singing on the transistor, being a gender bender. We’d scoff at the very idea of a man in a dress. We were fierce conservative. (Donny Osmond, anyone?)

Other top toys for kids (probably for boys) this festive season include a Lego Ghostbusters car building set. It contains 2,352 pieces and is for “car lovers”.

No matter how you try to raise children in a way that doesn’t neatly slot them into the gender binary divide, we know that, generally speaking, girls gravitate towards dolls, make-up sets and all things pink. Heck, our friend’s bedroom where we played on the fluffy marshmallow-pink carpet, was done up in pure pink.

While not a girly girl, I was more into dolls than fire engines. (But I’d have loved a train set.)

Dolls have been part of human play for thousands of years. In 2004, a 4,000-year-old stone was was unearthed in an archaeological dig on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. The British Museum has several examples of ancient Egyptian rag dolls, made of papyrus-stuffed linen.

Over millennia, toy dolls crossed continents and social classes. They were made from rags, sticks, porcelain and vinyl.

On BBC 3 last week, there was a programme about toys through the ages and their meaning. One of the contributors was Miranda Corcoran, a lecturer in 21st century literature at UCC with an interest in witchcraft and supernatural fiction.

She spoke about the Bafana doll. It’s like a little old woman with a pointy nose, a scary face, a shock of grey hair and a pointy hat.

Needless to say, the doll has a broomstick. But she’s a very particular type of witch. A figure in Italian folklore, she visits children on the feast of the epiphany on January 6. She brings toys and sweets to the good children and coal to the bad children - a sort of female Santa Claus.

Christmas is, of course, for children. But this year, there are fewer toys around because of labour shortages in China, a shortage of shipping containers worldwide and the impact of Covid - and Brexit - on the supply chain.

If this sounds like a bummer, think of Jewish children during the holocaust. Their experiences are told through their toys and games in an online exhibition, documented by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. The images include dolls, homemade chess sets and boards, illustrated books and a box of puzzle pieces.

One doll in the collection is dressed in the pyjamas that survivor Lore Stern wore during Kristallnacht - the night in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and Synagogues in Germany in 1938.

Inmates of Auschwitz made toys out of tin cans and anything that they could find.

Clearly, there is a strong instinct to not just make these items, but to play as well - even in the most awful circumstances.

Today, there are children suffering terrible injustices because of wars and famine in places around the world. For them, Christmas would probably be a proper meal and a cosy bed without the fear of attack in, for example, Palestine.

In the privileged world we occupy, we heard that bluffer, Boris Johnson, riffing on Peppa Pig when he lost his notes while giving a speech. Bah humbug to him!

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