In 1800s New York, the overlapping interests of middle-class families and the wealthy produced a cultural practice that’s still in place today.
During a week when so many Americans have experienced some combination of joy, rage, and frustration in seeking the perfect 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. Gifts do not primarily serve as rewards: Commentators on the political left and right have in recent years asked parents to abandon the “naughty and nice” paradigm that suggests such presents are prizes for good behavior, and indeed historical evidence suggests that proper conduct has not been a widespread prerequisite for young Americans to receive Christmas gifts.
Nor do presents seem to have a clear connection to Christian faith. Some American families have established a “three-gift” 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. In fact, religious leaders have long been more likely to decry the commercialization of Christmas as detracting from the true spirit of the holiday than to celebrate the delivery of purchased goods to middle-class or wealthy children. (Donating gifts to poor children is a different matter, of course, but that practice became common in the United States only after gift-giving at home became a well-established ritual.)
Ringel comes to the conclusion that gift-giving began in New York because of tension between New York’s elites and its working classes, and the emergence of a new Middle Class.
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. As work and home became increasingly separated for these families, parents kept children within the home (or at church or in school) as long as possible in order to avoid what many of them perceived as the corrupting influences of commerce on kids’ inchoate moral character. Elites’ efforts to domesticate Christmas aligned neatly with these parents’ interests, for they encouraged young Americans to associate the joys of the holiday with the morally and physically protective space of home.
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.
While gift-giving had originated in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, after the Civil War the spread of consumer products in America made it increasingly difficult to control children’s access to toys, books, and magazines. In order to keep young people at home, parents began to purchase products intended to amuse as well as educate their children.
Postbellum Christmas traditions followed this broader trend by becoming more child-focused, particularly through the reconstructed image of St. Nicholas. Clement Clark Moore’s St. Nick was an elf who was jolly but also a bit scary (as indicated by the narrator’s repeated reminder that he had “nothing to dread”). During the 1860s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast created a new image of Santa Claus that replaced this ambiguous figure with a warm, grandfatherly character who often appeared with his arms full of dolls, games, and other secular toys. One of the earliest publications in which Nast’s Santa figure appeared was the December 1868 issue of the magazine Hearth and Home.
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. Retailers certainly supported and benefited from this implicit alliance, but not until the turn of the 20th century did they assume a proactive role of marketing directly to children in the hopes that they might entice (or annoy) their parents into spending more money on what was already a well-established practice of Christmas gift-giving.
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.
And so giving gifts to children at Christmas time is not a custom centuries old, but actually originated in America, in the late 1700s in New York, by elites, as a way to keep children from participating in rowdy Christmas celebrations with the working class.