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.)
Critics of the commercialization of Christmas tend to attribute the growth of holiday gift-giving to corporate marketing efforts.
Although such efforts did contribute to the magnitude of the ritual, the practice of buying Christmas presents for children predates the spread of corporate capitalism in the United States: It began during the first half of the 1800s, particularly in New York City, and was part of a broader transformation of Christmas from a time of public revelry into a home- and child-centered holiday.
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. New York’s population grew nearly tenfold from 1800 to 1850, and during that time elites became increasingly frightened of traditional December rituals of “social inversion,” in which poorer people could demand food and drink from the wealthy and celebrate in the streets, abandoning established social constraints much like on Halloween night or New Year’s Eve. These rituals, which occurred any time between St. Nicholas Day (a Catholic feast day observed in Europe on December 6) and New Year’s Day, had for centuries been a means of relieving European peasants’ (or American slaves’) discontent during the traditional downtime of the agricultural cycle. In a newly congested urban environment, though, aristocrats worried that such celebrations might become vehicles for protest when employers refused to give workers time off during the holidays or when a long winter of unemployment loomed for seasonal laborers.