Hard to believe, but the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Day came along late. In its early years, the holiday included few, if any, gifts, and families who celebrated it were more focused on activities like dancing, singing, playing games, and eating together.
Case in point: Remember Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s pre-Gilded Age A Christmas Carol? Upon waking from his three-part lesson on the importance of generosity, Scrooge—declaring, “I am light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy, I am as giddy as a drunken man”—splurges and buys a gigantic goose for the Cratchitts, donates money to a charity for the poor, then heads to his nephew’s to play games. Nowhere in there did his overflowing Christmas spirit motivate him to shower Tiny Tim with gifts.
But as the 19th century neared its close, the commercial side of the winter holidays, especially among wealthy city-dwellers, began to inch in on those simpler and cheaper traditions. According to the ProQuest historical database for the Chicago Tribune, there were just two references to “Christmas shopping” in articles published between 1850 and 1859. Two. But during the first decade of the 1900s, the Trib mentioned that phrase almost a thousand times (967, to be exact).
The great department stores of the late 19th and early 20th centuries became favorite places to spend money during the holidays. Marshall Field’s, Macy’s, or Sears, Roebuck and Co. took out ads in local newspapers and put up lavish window displays featuring more dolls, toys and other giftable goods than ever before. The abundance and low cost were all thanks to industrialization; before that, toys were handmade and too rare and expensive for the masses.
Toys weren’t the only goods touted as holiday-friendly. According to a December 14, 1884 article (“Christmas Shopping&rdquo😉 in the Chicago Tribune,
The reporter also observed an effect Christmas shopping was having on the then-modern family: “In every family there is a deepening anxiety as to what shall be given; how much shall be given; to whom it shall be given; and perhaps how a wise economy can be made to satisfy the expectations of the period.”
The article concluded with a few pieces of advice to allay that anxiety: Don’t buy decorative things, because they’ll go out of fashion. Give “useful” and “permanent” gifts—a shovel, for instance. If one receives a “purely ornamental” item, an unfortunate but practical recourse is re-gifting, which looks to be as old a tradition as gifting itself. “This system,” however, the reporter warns, “requires considerable care and discretion, lest the gifts on their second journey reach a destination where the original sender will see them or fall into the hands of the latter’s friends. … This plan requires some audacity, but with a little experience it can be made to work admirably.”
Images: Advertisement from Harper’s Weekly, December 1894, for Lundborg’s Perfumes
References: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.
“Christmas Shopping.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Dec 14, 1884, http://search.proquest.com/docview/173702229?accountid=135622