Skip to comments.NYT: Christmas Past and Presents
Posted on 12/23/2004 7:35:45 AM PST by OESY
FINDING the perfect gift has long been a national pastime. But the celebration of Christmas, and the culture of gift giving that accompanies the holiday, have changed significantly in America over the years. Economic and social pressures have transformed how, and with whom, we celebrate Christmas, altering it from a holiday that was at times illegal, or limited to adult parties, or a gift-giving child-centered extravaganza like today's.
There are several popular misconceptions about the origins of the American version of the holiday. To start, Christmas was actually suppressed in New England's colonial days. The Puritans found no affirmative command to celebrate Christmas in the Bible and, being good Calvinists, frowned on the celebration. They even outlawed it for a time during the 17th century. Opposition to the holiday lingered well into the 19th century, when many New England children were required to attend school on Christmas Day. So take down your Currier & Ives prints of winter sleigh rides to Grandma's house in New England. True New England grandmas disdained Christmas - well into the 1800's.
In contrast, the colonial South provided fruitful soil for importing the traditional English Christmas celebration to this continent. It was a festive and sometimes boisterous adult affair characterized by the Yule log, boar's head and wassail bowl. Southerners put the kids to bed and passed the bowl. During the 19th century, much of the revelry was gradually moved to New Year's Eve, so now it's put the kids to bed and pass the champagne flute.
The symbols of Christmas that we know today - St. Nicholas, the Christmas tree and the wonderment of the holiday among children - were brought from the old country by people living in the Middle Atlantic states. The Pennsylvania Dutch, the Swedes of New Jersey and particularly the "true Dutch" of New York shared with their neighbors the traditions of their Northern European heritage, practices that have endured.
As the importance of New York City in national life increased with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New Yorkers' ideas on celebrating Christmas circulated widely. Washington Irving made frequent use of New York settings and Christmas themes in his writings. Clement Clarke Moore supposedly wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (which begins " 'Twas the night before Christmas...") while a professor at General Theological Seminary. Beginning in the 1860's, the drawings of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast of New York firmly established the appearance of the Jolly Saint as a cultural icon. In 1912, New York City, along with Boston and Hartford, put up the nation's first community Christmas trees.
Large New York area department stores, like Macy's and Bamberger's, played their part in particularly innovative ways. They Bambegan by hiring Santas for their stores throughout the season. Fittingly, the first school to train professional Santas was established in Albion, N.Y. in 1937.
Although the Christmas celebration existed in America from the settlers' earliest times, the holiday remained small in scale until the 19th century, when it began to play a larger role in national culture, building on the work of Moore, Nast, Irving and others. It achieved its much larger and truly modern scale only after the transformation of the holiday between 1880 and 1910.
Before 1880, American culture was predominantly rural, including the way it celebrated Christmas. Rural Americans gave many Christmas gifts to their families and neighbors. Food, small pieces of woodwork and sewed items were the most popular. Gifts to the immediate family were more substantial than those given to friends, but they remained modest by later standards. While almost all of these gifts were handmade, that imposed no heavy burden on givers because, in a farm economy, they had several months of free time after the harvest to make them.
When rural Americans moved to the cities in pursuit of employment and the other attractions of urban life, they brought along their rural habits of gift giving. But their new jobs in factories or offices - unrelated to the agricultural cycle - left them with no off season to fashion presents. As a consequence, they bought small, inexpensive manufactured items to give to their families and their new urban friends.
Figurines and other ceramic pieces were typical, as were wall hangings, inexpensive jewelry and small craft pieces like a framed "Home Sweet Home" sampler. A magazine writer in 1913 described them as "tawdry and gaudy gimcracks, flimsy gewgaws, ephemeral and unbeautiful; purchased often with lassitude, received with distaste, and soon relegated to the limbo of attic or ash heap."'
While gimcracks were most associated with gifts to friends, many gifts to relatives also qualified for this category. Spending differed little between gifts for friends or those for family.
In the first decade of the 20th century, people and organizations began to criticize this new pattern of gift-giving that had emerged in America's cities. Given the poor quality of the gimcracks and the considerable time that it took to purchase, wrap and deliver them, no wonder Progressive Era reformers looked for alternative ways to celebrate the holiday that were less burdensome and more gratifying.
That paved the way for Christmas cards, which became the ideal small gift for acquaintances and business associates. A survey of the mail system in 1911 reflected the shift, showing that the total number of items posted had increased while their total weight had dropped significantly.
Several other changes helped make the holiday less burdensome for workers. In 1906, the Consumer's League formed the Shop Early Campaign to discourage last-minute purchasing, a practice that strained everyone in the retail trade. The league also pressured stores to maintain regular store hours throughout the holiday season so that their employees could fully enjoy the celebration. They maintained and publicized a list of stores that complied in the hope of encouraging shoppers to choose them over stores that placed more burdens on their employees.
In 1912, Progressives also established the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (known as SPUG). Its goals were to curtail the presentation of gimcracks (which they regarded as inappropriate as expressions of mere acquaintanceship), and to curb the practice of store clerks giving presents to their supervisors ( the gifts were "extorted" rather than heartfelt).
The general success of the Progressives in reforming Christmas, as well as previous efforts to mold the festivities, supports the notion that the celebration can be changed, just like any other cultural phenomenon. So don't accept current complaints that Christmas has spun out of control and dictates our holiday behavior, driving us to ever-higher levels of spending. People can and should run the celebration, not the other way around.
William B. Waits is the author of "The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving."