It all began with the blizzard of 1996. Four days of foul January weather that downed power lines, dropped tenement-high snowdrifts on Manhattan, closed businesses and trapped New Yorkers indoors with nothing to do. Well, almost nothing. Nine months later, the birth rate shot up 25 per cent and bunny-seated rompers began to pop up on corners that formerly housed lip-pierced rockers or chic heroin shoppers.

Call it the power of suggestion, call it competitive acquisition, but snow or no snow, the trend shows no sign of slackening and New York now finds itself clutched in the plush embrace of a new era; the era of baby- gift buying. It would be one thing if the new parents were all of an age - say 30. But the new parents cut neatly across the decades, clocking in at 22, 35 or 43. When you spot them out parading with their young, your first tendency is to think they are either unfortunate teen statistics- babies with babies, or that they are posh nannies with babies, or, then again, that they are youthful grandparents with babies.

But no, they are, all of them, bona fide first-time parents, who presumably observed that the baby-toting blizzard hipsters had managed to preserve their downtown lifestyles-plus-sprog, noticed that the city was flush with money and policemen, and decided to beget while the getting was good. Since they are also bona fide New Yorkers, they instantaneously modified the wise cracking but heartfelt motto "the one with the most toys wins," to read "the one with the most baby toys wins". As a result, this year's holiday parties have exacted a double tariff on visiting revellers; the de rigeur bottle of wine - and then a cot blanket for $500, knitted from the chin hairs of Tibetan goats, and/or a Sing-and-Snore Ernie doll (of Sesame Street fame), which, theoretically can be had for $40, but is being scalped for 10 and 20 times more, since quick-witted hustlers scooped them up before parents could reach the shelves.

In their prior childless incarnations, Manhattan's newest parents were cynical website designers, coffee-house waitrons, or 'zine editors; streamlined, design-loving lawyers and scientists; or rainforest-minded guitarists and sitarists. Come the annual Christmas party circuit, one rounded them up (respectively) a velvet Elvis clock or rubberised vomit patch, a Swedish lighting fixture or Mexican worry dolls and incense. But anyone who shows up at a nogfest with an ironic, minimalist, or ecologically friendly bauble for baby is in for a reproachful glare and less invitations for the new year.

Babies are not only great wallet emptiers, they are the great taste levellers. People who lived in squalid squats or metal-strewn lofts somehow acquire overstuffed furniture, nannies and exorbitant Peg Perego strollers overnight. People who recently subsisted on psilocybin mushrooms, marijuana and ecstasy now turn on the sprinkler when an oblivious guest ignites a Marlboro Light. Indeed, some people suggest that New Yorkers are having children in order to acquire an excuse to pare down their vices. The real reason may be far less innocent - children are the city's newest power tool.

In influential media and business circles, children are being deployed strategically in engagements known as "play" dates, at which one mogul's children get to knock blocks with another's, while their parents exchange inside information. Getting one's own child into the fray is a career move tantamount to promotion, which can make childlessness a costly setback. Unsurprisingly, given the current climate, some couples are choosing adoption to speed their way to the corner office. The most high-profile New York businesses now host not only staff Christmas parties, but staff children's Christmas parties, at which top-of-the-line Santas, magicians, and puppeteers entertain the drooling set, as white-jacketed caterers pass them gourmet ginger snaps to gum.

It is no coincidence that amid this ecstasy of sugarplums and swaddling clothes, the Spelling Entertainment Group company, which bucked the trend and sacked a pregnant actress, reportedly saying, "Why doesn't she just go out and get an abortion?" was ordered on the first day of Christmas week to pay her $5 million for their insolence and her pains. If she's lucky, that just might get her a Sing-and-Snore Ernie before her child learns to drive.