I’ve been enjoying reading Stephen Nissenbaum’s fine book The Battle for Christmas. Most Americans tend naturally to think that the Christmas traditions we share have been relatively unchanged for a very, very long time. Not so.
For example, when the Pilgrims arrived in North America on Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony in 1620, the last thing a child in that colony would expect around Christmas or New Year’s would be a gift or present of any sort. According to Nissenbaum’s rigorous research, the idea of giving gifts and presents during that time of year didn’t really take hold until the 1820s. But when it did, wow!
Early on, in the 1820s and 1830s, books, literary “annuals,” and “gift books,” collections of short stories and poetry, etc., became popular and increasingly ornate. Before long, they included “presentation plates,” opening pages in which the giver could inscribe his name, the name of the one to whom the gift was being given, and even the reason for the gift. “From _____ as a token of _____ to _____.” It might be “a token of” “his regard” or “friendship” or “affection” or whatever.
In this rather ingenious way, a book that was, though a rather expensive (and perhaps very expensive) extravagance, albeit mass-produced and very popular, became a personalized gift. It really was not at all a “one of a kind” gift, but the inscription transformed it into a “one of a kind” gift especially from me to thee.
Not surprisingly, Bibles also became very popular gifts. An incredible array of Bibles in sizes and editions with illustrations and “helps” such as maps and pronunciation keys, and much more, were available in myriad colors and bindings. Again, they were great gifts, mass- produced, to be sure, but also with the “presentation page” at the front to make them intensely personal gifts. Publishers were not slow to recognize both their popularity and marketing potential. According to Nissenbaum, Harpers Illuminated Bible, ornately illustrated and handsomely bound and gilt, earned for its publishers in “its first dozen years” the “staggering sum of $500,000” in retail sales.
And, of course, as gift-giving took firm hold and the holidays began to center increasingly on children, all sorts of toys and dolls and . . . began to fill stockings, and Santa Claus (or some variation of that spelling referring to the “jolly old elf”) became quite prominent. In fact, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” known to most as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823) did more than any other single work to paint the holiday, and especially St. Nick, in our minds as we’ve pictured it ever since.
Nissenbaum follows the experiences of one particular family through several decades and includes quotations from the letters they wrote to each other or others during the holidays as gifts became an increasingly prominent feature of their celebration. He particularly notes the reactions of the children to the gifts.
We begin to see soon in the descriptions of their holidays and gifts some categories of gift-related problems that are as modern as tomorrow.
Various members of the family talk about how hard it is to “find the right present.” Some of the gifts ordered turn out to be “the wrong gift.” Some are “lost in the mail” or “don’t arrive on time.” Or so-and-so, it was discovered, “already has that.” Or “it was really not what was asked for.” Or the gift turns out to be “rather a useless trifle” or “what do you do with this?” Perhaps the toy breaks quickly. Maybe the size or color is wrong. And on the problems went. And on they still go.
One of my favorite songs to sing during the holidays features the lyrics of Christina Rossetti’s poem (1872), “In the Bleak Midwinter.” She takes the reader to the scene of Christ’s birth where “may have gathered,” she writes, “angels and archangels” and where “cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.” His mother Mary “worships the Beloved” with “a kiss.”
But “what shall I give Him,” she asks, “poor as I am?” What indeed can be given to the One all of Heaven cannot hold, “nor can earth sustain,” the One who will “reign” over all?
“If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. / If I were a wise man, I would do my part.” But “what then can I give Him”?
Her answer is still the best, and points to the only real gift that you and I can give to the One who has given us life and breath, joy and hope, and who sustains us and the entire universe every moment: “I will give my heart.”
You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!
Copyright 2022 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.