An action Man figurine, an oven, a cuddly toy! No, not The Generation Game, but three must-have toys from the past 50 years that have come to dominate the Christmas run-up.

While that might not sound terribly modern, the fervour that has surrounded the term "must-have" certainly is. Sure, wannabe Galloping Gourmets might have been delighted to take possession of an Easy Bake oven in the 1960s; and marines-in-the-making might have been thrilled to receive a figure in fatigues in the 1970s.

But the reception that greeted Tickle Me Elmo in 1996, say – when hordes of manic mums and petrifying pops fought tooth and nail for the pleasure of taking a red fur-ball home –was never felt by any kid-friendly kitchen appliance or swivel-eyed fighting man.

So what happened? Cabbage Patch Dolls, that's what. In the mid-1980s, the strange chubby-faced cherubs were the subject of much tugging and shouting even as they emerged from stock rooms on to sales floors. And why did it happen? The ubiquity of its 150 brand extensions didn't hurt its desirability, that's for sure.

And so we progressed through the mystifying Pokémon, key-chain-pet Tamagotchis, burbling Furbies (above), Barbie basher Bratz – even the accident-waiting-to-happen Nintendo Wii, which, despite its higher price point, proved almost impossible to get your hands on in its early days, so high was the demand.

In the 1980s and 1990s, much of the mania was driven by TV ads, leading to chatter in the playground; but the past decade has seen every e-tailer creating its own top-10 lists for children to pore over as they write their letters to Santa. And we, the media, don't help, slavishly reporting each year on the Toy Retailers Association (TRA) "Dream Toys" list.

So what's everyone going to want this year? First on the TRA bulletin is, well, would you look at that? It's a Cabbage Patch Doll and second is a Furby! Plus ça change, etc. For more, consult the TRA website. Or a child psychologist for when you don't buy the little darlings exactly what they want. The latter will probably be cheaper.