During a week when so many Americans have experienced some combination of joy, rage, and frustration in seeking the why do you get presents on Christmas? holiday gifts for their children, it seems appropriate to pause and ask: Where did the practice of giving Christmas gifts to children come from? There does not appear to be an easy answer. Nor do presents seem to have a clear connection to Christian faith.
Christmas in an effort to link the practice to the generosity of the three wise men in the story of Jesus’s birth, but again no broad historical precedent exists for this link. Critics of the commercialization of Christmas tend to attribute the growth of holiday gift-giving to corporate marketing efforts. This reinvention was driven partly by commercial interests, but more powerfully by the converging anxieties of social elites and middle-class parents in rapidly urbanizing communities who sought to exert control over the bewildering changes occurring in their cities. By establishing a new type of midwinter celebration that integrated home, family, and shopping, these Americans strengthened an emerging bond between Protestantism and consumer capitalism. In his book The Battle for Christmas, the historian Stephen Nissenbaum presents the 19th-century reinvention of the holiday as a triumph of New York’s elites over the city’s emerging working classes. In response to these concerns, a group of wealthy men who called themselves the Knickerbockers invented a new series of traditions for this time of year that gradually moved Christmas celebrations out of the city’s streets and into its homes. Nicholas that Moore presented in his famous poem was not a wholesale invention, but like the other traditions the Knickerbockers borrowed and transformed, he was not a well-established part of New York’s winter holiday rituals.
Christmas tradition requires an expansion of Nissenbaum’s story. The Battle for Christmas focuses on the tensions between New York’s elites and its working classes, but during this same period, a middle class began to emerge in New York and other northern cities, and the reinvention of Christmas served their purposes as well. In response to the increasing uncertainty surrounding this stage of life, urban families that aspired to prepare their children for life in the middle and upper ranks of American society widely adopted new strategies for child-rearing. Meanwhile, even if parents were concerned about commercial influences outside the home, they were not bothered by the idea of letting children’s commodities into it, in limited doses. In the 1820s, an American toy industry began to emerge, and American publishers started producing books and magazines for children. The first three self-sustaining children’s magazines in U.
Let the Youth’s Magazine be called his own paper, and how will the juvenile reader clasp it to his bosom in ecstacy as he takes it from the Post-Office. And if instruction from any source will deeply affect his heart, it will when communicated through the medium of this little pamphlet. If early 19th-century newspaper ads promoting bibles as children’s Christmas gifts are any indication, parents during this era seem to have retained a similar focus on delivering spiritual value to their children. Postbellum Christmas traditions followed this broader trend by becoming more child-focused, particularly through the reconstructed image of St. Christmas gift-giving, then, is the product of overlapping interests between elites who wanted to move raucous celebrations out of the streets and into homes, and families who simultaneously wanted to keep their children safe at home and expose them, in limited amounts, to commercial entertainment. In the nearly two centuries since New Yorkers instigated the invention of today’s Christmas rituals, American families have invested gift-giving and other widely practiced holiday traditions with their own unique meanings. Identifying the origins of these rituals as historical rather than eternal reinforces their power to do so.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Commercializing Childhood: Children’s Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the Ideal of the American Child, 1823-1918. 2018 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. Frankincense was a perfume used in Jewish worship and, as a gift, it showed that people would worship Jesus. Gold was associated with Kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings. Myrrh was a perfume that was put on dead bodies to make them smell nice and, as a gift, it showed that Jesus would suffer and die. Christmas itself is really about a big present that God gave the world about 2000 years ago – Jesus!