04 December 2007

Holidays & Celebrations:
Gift-Giving in America

By Christine Koehler

Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know. ~ Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Eastern Syndicate aside, Christmas gift giving in America (as we know it) has been around since the 1820s. So when your parents or grandparents or Great-Aunt Honoria says she remembers when it wasn't so, check that birth certificate. Chances are she's wrong, but one never knows, does one.

In doing research for this blog, I came across site after site after site of Christmas Traditions. No matter how I changed my search, the amount of info I could find on Christmas presents was limited. Now I know people exchanged gifts; from the earliest times they did. Why was it so difficult to find something on gift giving in America?

You'd think I asked to have the moon hand delivered and covered in melted chocolate. At least that would've had chocolate.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a story she wrote in the 1850s, has a character complain about this: "the very idea of a present was new! [T]here are worlds of money wasted at this time of year." Hey, at least she (and her character) really did remember 'the good ole days.' Commercialization did occur in her life time.

The first advertising for Christmas Gifts is found in the early 1800s. In 1804, the New York Historical Society was founded, and St. Nicholas became the society's patron saint. It was here that the Dutch tradition of St. Nick as a gift bringer was revived.

"Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night
O'er chimney tops, and tracks of snow
To bring his yearly gifts to you."
William B. Gilley, "A Children's Friend," 1821
By the 1820s, ads began to spring up more and more, and by the 1840s, they were an integral part American Society. This sudden interest in gift giving may be tied to the rise of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

Thomas Nast popularized the current image of Santa Claus, whom he drew differently every year beginning in the 1860s. Yet it wasn't until the 1920s when the image was standardized by, yup you guessed it, advertisers.

During the 1930s, FDR proposed moving the Thanksgiving holiday date to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy during the Great Depression. That lasted three years before people complained. I;m not sure those complainers were retailers, however.

Even with this limited information, it's clear: Americans have always loved shopping for Christmas presents.

St. Charles Christmas
World of Christmas
US Government Archives