I've obviously been giving this subject a lot of thought the past few weeks, so here are some recommendations, mostly for the 5 to 10 year old crowd. No video games included - they don't get to come to this house. Not. Ever.
Snap Circuits: One doesn't play with these much (although he likes them when he does), but Two has a special love for them. He takes the C&S Sales catalog to bed with him, to ensure happy dreams about circuits, robots and such. Stinkin' engineer ...
Legos: I hate the Lego kits, although both boys have friends who love them. My problem is unique to each boy: Two hates to follow directions on any toy, prefering at all times to make things up as he goes along. That would be a problem with a 700 piece kit. One loves to follow directions, but he just can't on the Lego kits. This is the child who had to be taught to use the TV remote by his younger brother. When he was seven. It's a future-history-professor kind of thing, I guess.
Anyway, what they both love are just plain Legos. They even love the "toddler" version, now called Duplos. As they explained to me recently: "We like the small ones, but when you want to build some honkin' big stuff, the little ones just don't work." Seems logical to me.
Books: Yes, books are a perfectly acceptable present in this house. You thought otherwise? We're actually expanding on the "books as presents" idea this year by getting them iPod nanos and gift certificates to Audible.com. They love books on tape, and this is a much less cumbersome way of getting them a bunch of them. Whether they actually ever figure out that music belongs on the iPods, I cannot say.
Guns: We love guns. And the boys think toy guns are the greatest. toy. ever. They've broken most of them, so it's time to replentish their stock. Don't get me started on the marshmallow-shooting variety, however. But burp guns? Love 'um. Nerf, cowboy guns, semi-automatics - all good, too. A young boy can never have too many weapons.
I floated the idea of a real, honest BB gun for One this year, but Husband has yet to respond. With One, the whole "you'll shoot your eye out!" fear rings quite true, so it may not be the best idea I've ever had. Usually a non-response from Husband means "you're so completely crazy, but I am far, far too nice to tell you so", so I think we will pass on this one this year.
Other Weaponry: The boys have always loved swords, whether they be cheap plastic ones or nicer, wooden ones. They fight each other, as well as fight imaginary enemies when they're alone. The latter looks like the boy version of ballet. I love it.
Toy Soldiers: We have buckets of these, along with some tanks and such, and the boys don't show any signs of getting sick of them. The soliders usually man the ships, tanks, and such that the boys build with Legos.
The Big Presents: Two years ago we sprang for a foosball table; the boys and Husband have played for hours on it so far, and it seems as if that won't stop anytime soon. Whether it's foosball, air hockey, pool or ping pong - if you have the room for it, it's worth it for all the time you'll spend together. I'd put the big basketball hoop in the same category; that was a Christmas present from my dad and stepmother several years ago and it is very loved and well-used.
The Toddler Corner: Husband and I were discussing the ideas that have worked over the years and those that didn't, and we thought of some good one from the not-so-distant past that the boys have mostly outgrown. They include big wooden blocks, train sets (ours is now loved by a small friend, who wakes him mother each morning with the word "choo-choo?"), as well as some "speciality items" such as Carnovires. This last item is headed north to our nephew this Christmas; we hope he likes them, too.
That's my list for now. Check out the Instapundits, Glenn and Helen, for some more ideas.