“Presents Did Not Fly About as They Do Now”

In 1850, which was before she wrote her classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story for Christmas. One of her characters describes the difficulty of buying gifts, Christmas presents:

“‘Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.’”

She then recalls the early years of her life when “‘presents did not fly about as they do now.’” In fact, “‘the very idea of a present was so new.’” But now, she laments, “‘There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.’”

These lines are quoted by Stephen Nissenbaum in his book, The Battle for Christmas. The “battle” has nothing to do with whether we wish each other a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” It has everything to do with this noted historian writing “A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday.” The book is incredibly well-researched, was a “Pulitzer Prize Finalist,” and is packed full of surprises regarding how America’s celebration of Christmas actually came to be what it is. (It’s interesting that America’s foremost scholar on the history of Christmas in America is Jewish, a fact he finds interesting, too.)

The reader probably already knows that the celebration of Christmas was not looked upon with favor, and was even outlawed at times, by Puritans in the New World. When you read his description of the history of mind-blowing rowdiness, party-crashing, uninvited “guests” showing up at the doors and inside the houses of folks from whom they demanded cakes and ale (“trick or treat” on steroids), you’ll have a bit more sympathy for the Puritans. I had no idea!

According to Nissenbaum, Harriet Beecher Stowe is on point when her character describes the kind of gift-buying and gift-giving conundrum we still face. The interesting thing is that, though we’ve faced exactly what she describes for generations, it was indeed a new thing in the early 19th-century. It was in the 1820s, the historian says, that buying presents for folks at Christmas actually became a very major part of the holiday in our country.

At one time, lords of manors in England invited their workers in to their masters’ homes during the holidays for food and drink. That “invitation” later devolved in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc., into the uninvited sort of thing described above. A time of making the rounds and visiting friends, eating and drinking, to excess or not, was also common.

But eventually, the celebrations became less centered in places and people outside the family unit and shifted focus to the family itself. The kids would receive some small presents (fruit, candy, and later, books, etc.). As was the case with the manor’s workers years before, around the holiday times, society’s tables turned topsy-turvy and kids, who occupied a place in the household on par perhaps with servants, were elevated in status during the holidays.

Nissenbaum catalogs it all. In the 1820s, gift-giving really ramped up. Stores, sales, advertising in the newspapers, and so on. Gifts for wives and the mothers of the household soon gained favor, and shopkeepers and publishers, etc., increasingly jumped on the bandwagon which gained, as you know, incredible mass and speed.

I think I’ve reported accurately here, but Nissenbaum’s book is worth a read.

My own history, I know much better. In my family, we pretty much always knew that Santa Claus was Dad. (Nissenbaum talks a lot about St. Nick’s origins.) On Christmas morning, we opened the gifts one at a time. Dad was Santa, and the unwritten rule was that each gift went through his hands to ours. One at a time.

Mom and Dad’s older kids went through sparser times (fruit, candy, clothes), but by the time my brother Jim and I came around, we usually got a special and much-wanted present or two, some much less expensive ones, and, not unusually, some stuff we needed and the family budget would be accommodating anyway—pajamas, socks, blue jeans, underwear, etc. We were far from poverty-stricken, but Mom and Dad were smart. Wrapped socks do constitute an actual present that can be added to the stash under the tree for Yuletide plenty.

One of the worst presents Jim and I ever gave Dad (it may have been a birthday, but I think it was Christmas) was a bottle of “Grecian Formula” guaranteed by its makers to slowly turn gray hair dark. We tried to scratch off the directions regarding hair color and just wanted to watch his surprise in the days ahead. Our trick didn’t work.

If my meanderings bring to mind the history of some of your own Christmases and gifts, I’m glad. But most of all, I hope my words (sparked by Nissenbaum’s great book) help you think a bit about the kind of gifts that really matter and that your loved ones really need. The most precious cost nothing at all but your love.

The history of how we celebrate Christmas is fascinating. But the real celebration centers on the best Gift of all.

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.

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