The Wild True Story Behind the Cabbage Patch Kids Riots

Laura Dern and Issa Rae will star in a new HBO series about this real-life version of ‘Jingle All the Way.’
Jingle All The Way
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on December 5th, 2018

If the condemnation of rampant commercialism that is Jingle All the Way taught us anything, it’s that children’s toys bring out the worst in people. In that movie, human art form Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a father whose moral code is tested when he’s tasked with hunting down the last remaining Turbo Man action figure for his neglected son on Christmas Eve. Of course, he’s not the only parent in pursuit of the popular doll, and all hell breaks loose as they try to claim the toy for their brats.

Like Dawn of the Dead before it, Jingle All the Way highlights the dangers of excessive consumerism. In one scene, Arnie bites another human being, not unlike zombies tearing into scrumptious, tasty human flesh. But Jingle All the Way is much scarier than George Romero’s seminal horror film because the undead aren’t real. Humans are real, though, and sometimes people do crazy things for material gain.

This brings me to the latest Laura Dern news. The Hollywood Reporter has revealed the Oscar-nominated actress is set to executive produce and star in The Dolls, a limited series for HBO about the 1983 Cabbage Patch Kids doll riots that tormented America during the Christmas shopping season. Insecure co-creator Issa Rae is also attached to executive produce and star alongside Dern, who will surely bring back some of that mama bear attitude she brought to her award-winning performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies. A TV series starring two talented folks that focuses on people engaged in violence over toys? Count me in.

Jingle All the Way springs to mind immediately when this story is brought up. However, that movie had a feel-good resolution about sharing, Christmas spirit, kindness, family values, and all that other jazz we associate with the most festive time of the calendar year. The Cabbage Patch Kids riots is a story that’s as hideously ugly as the dolls themselves, and a prime example of consumerism at its most savage and cruel.

So, what happened?

Well, for some reason these raggedy playthings were all the rage in 1983. The dolls were supposedly created by Martha Nelson Thomas and originally called Doll Babies. She had no intention of selling the toys, though, which led to then-21-year-old student Xavier Roberts (allegedly) copying her designs and rebranding the toys as his own creation. Thus, the Cabbage Patch Kids were born and subsequently distributed by Coleco.

The Cabbage Patch Kids were unique because no two dolls were alike and they all came with their own birth certificates. This wasn’t merely buying toys to add to a collection — it was akin to adopting new children for the family. A child’s precursor to parenting, if you will. Coleco even sent cards out to the dolls on their birthdays to further the illusion that these toys were real. You can understand why they were in such high demand.

Anyway, by 1983, the demand for the dolls was so great that there just weren’t enough to go around. Coleco knew they’d be popular, but no one foresaw the extent of the hype and hysteria surrounding these little scoundrels. People were camping outside of stores for entire days only to enter and discover the Cabbage Patch Kids were sold out and they weren’t coming back in time for Christmas. That’s when the violence erupted.

Reports of violence emerged from all over the country. At a Zayre’s store in Pennsylvania, a shopkeeper had to stave off an angry mob of 1000-strong with a baseball bat after they unleashed pandemonium in his place of business. There were stories of Christmas shoppers coming to blows. Some people were trampled in the violent outbreaks, including a 75-year-old man and a pregnant woman.

When people weren’t beating the snot out of each other, they bribed store clerks or radio stations that were giving the dolls away as prizes. Other desperate adults sought out the addresses of people who managed to successfully obtain one of the dolls, with the aim of showing up at their house and doing God knows what. Xavier Roberts just wanted to make children happy and ended up, unwittingly, causing widespread chaos. Even if he was a thief…

In 1984, Coleco was smart enough to produce enough toys to satisfy the high demand and all was right with the world again. These days, you can adopt a Cabbage Patch Kid without fearing for your own well-being. Of course, consumer mayhem reared its ugly head just as maniacally in the mid-2000s when Black Friday riots became a new Thanksgiving tradition for a minute, but that’s another story for another day.

Does anyone remember the days when the holidays weren’t like The Purge? Yeah, me neither.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.