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Thursday, December 15, 2011


“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” --Jo March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Gifts Before 1800

In the records of presents in the annals of English record-keeping, there was always an element of the legal or quasi-legal in character. For example, Lord Chief Justice Branston’s gifts at his Essex manor during Christmas 1636 include 32 turkeys, 54 capons, 3 bullocks, a hogshead of claret, puddings, oysters, and a basket of apples; a neighbor gave him a silver dish. Elizabeth I received a satin nightgown from Sir Francis Walsingham in 1579 and a petticoat of sea-water green satin from the Latin Secretary, John Wolley. Lord Burghley sent his sister Anne a spinning wheel in 1567. Oranges stuck with cloves were an extremely popular gift. Sometimes gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day: rings, gloves, pins, apples, and nutmegs.

Samuel Pepys was scandalized in 1663 that Lady Castlemaine had been given all the presents which had been given to the King. A 1728 ad in Country Journal for “Famous Anodyne Necklaces,” 5/- each or 48 s for a dozen, claimed they made “very proper for a present at Christmas or for a New Year’s gift.” Books in the 18th century were considered a good gift, such as Aesop’s Fables in 1739, and annuals have been popular gifts for children since the 18th century. In the US, the earliest record of gift-giving comes from German Moravian immigrants in the 18th century. “Some received scarves, some a handkerchief, some a hat, some neckerchiefs, and some a few apples” (Restad 65). Meriwether Lewis gave William Clark some hosiery, a shirt, a pair of drawers and socks on December 25th, 1805, while they were at their winter camp on the Columbia River. He received from his men, among other things, a pair of moccasins.

Presents, Presents, Presents

Gift-giving exploded after the 1820s, when commercial advertisements were more prevalent, and after the 1850s, when gift-giving among adults took off. John Pintard wrote in 1830 of “the endless variety of European Toys” he saw in New York (67). An 1842 Bostonian woman was similarly struck. As early as the 1830s, one New York visitor wrote that people were still strolling around the shopping streets at nearly midnight, looking at all the shops had to offer. Merchants advertised even then for the “winter holidays” rather than specially for Christmas. Caroline Cowls Richards wrote in her diary, “They [her grandparents] say when they were young, no one observed Christmas or New Years, but they always kept thanksgiving day” (69).

Gifts between the genders followed differing rules. Husbands tended to give wives sentimental presents like jewelry. George Templeton Strong, toward the end of the 19th century, for example, had decided to cut down on his Christmas spending and would only spend $20 on his wife. However, he became inflamed by a $200 cameo brooch displayed in the windows of Tiffany (he bought it). Wives tended to give husbands personal, practical gifts like handmade slippers. The gift of a gold pen was also highly regarded. According to Harper’s Bazaar of 1896, the presents of the season were silver and leather. As for silver, “At the same time bulky articles are not popular and the prettiest conceits are made to fit comfortably in the waistcoat pocket.” Very fine inkstands were also popular, the high-end ones costing all of $29.00 (!). Paperweights, decanters, tobacco box, lamps, and hymnals were also fashionable in 1896.

Children also exchanged presents amongst themselves and were impressively generous in giving presents (not of great value, except sentimentally) to their parents. Popular presents for children were small Noah’s Arks, dolls, spinning tops, and, of course, books. By 1881, according again to Harper’s Bazaar, furnishings for doll houses, very elaborate and intricate, were fashionable. Walking animal dolls, alphabet blocks, models of the Brooklyn Bridge, miniature wooden animals, as well as “telephones, telescopes, printing-presses, tool-boxes with a scroll-saw added to them, rubber bar balls, drums, trumpets, sleighs with real white Angola robes, bicycles, and leaping horses are the attractive things for boys.” In 18th and 19th century Virginia, however, gifts were always given from social superiors to social inferiors, never vice versa. “Children, the poor and slaves might receive some small luxury like a book, sweets, gloves or a few coins” (“Traditional Christmas in Williamsburg, 18th Century, Christmas Holiday Traditions”).
Toward the end of the 19th century, the array of gifts was stupendous: a “silver slop basin,” the complete works of Robert Burns, a writing-desk, a work-box, pen wipers, match boxes, gold spectacles, a camel’s hair scarf were all noted down by diarists; not to mention “gimcracks,” useless novelty gifts. Restad argues that not only were economics the source of this bounty; “Christmas presents became an important language through which to express, maintain, and differentiate a hierarchy of personal association” (126). By the 1880s, elaborate wrapping had been influenced by the “drama of surprise” with labels provided by Wells Fargo that read “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL XMAS.”

Presents from Austen

A St Nicholas verse by Jane Austen attached to a gift of a little gingham needle bag made for a departing friend in January 1792 went like this:

This little bag, I hope, will prove
To be not vainly made;
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.

And, as we are about to part,
‘Twill serve another end:
For, when you look upon this bag,
You’ll recollect your friend.

Emma Austen Leigh, Jane Austen’s niece, kept a record of her gifts from 1813-1821. Here are some highlights which give good insight into the kinds of gifts a middle class young woman might receive as she was growing up, and from whom she could expect to have presents.

Mamma – a mariner’s compass
Aunt – a silver vinagrette
Augusta – a gold twisted ring
Miss Ramsey – a leather purse

Mamma – a gold chain
Aunt – a coral broach [sic]
Miss Ramsey – a nitting [sic] box her own drawing on the top
Augusta – China candlestick
Fanny – a silk box. The winters made by her

Mamma – a fur Tippet
Aunt – a Belgian leather workbox
Charles – a rosebud broach [sic]
Eliza – a peacock feather screen, her own making
Charlotte – a pair of Ruffles, ditto.
Drummond – a memorandum book, ditto.
Maria – a pincushion, ditto.

Aunt – a rosewood jewel box
August – an ivory opera glass
Fanny – a blue bead necklace, she strung
Eliza – a penknife
Charlotte – a white satin pincushion
Belinda and Harriot – a splendid hair bracelet and clasp, their own hair
Charles brought me from abroad
A blue, gold and silver turban
Genoa and French flowers
Lyons lavender colored silk gown
Belgian silk scarf
French worked muslin handkerchief
Steel buckle
Cut coral necklace and earrings and coral cameo ring and coral head fringes
Vienna enamel cross and fastenings
Moscow turquoise set in a ring at Vienna
Vienna mother of pearl trunk
Tartarian or chinese scent bag
Biscuit figure of a good girl from Dresden
Quantity of Petis Gris, or squirrel furs
Silver chains and dangler

In Spain and South American countries, the Three Kings bring presents. In Italy, a kindly old witch called La Befana gives children sweets if they’ve been good, or coal if they’ve been bad. In her legend, the Three Kings stopped at her home on their way an invited her to with them to see the Christ Child. But she had recently lost her own child and was too upset to see another baby. But as they were leaving she changed her mind and followed them on her broomstick, but never found them again. In Russia either Babouschka or Grandfather Frost bring gifts; in Scandinavia, it’s a tribe of gnomes, one of whom is named Julenissen.

Previously in the section on France we noted that the Anglo-Saxon figure of Santa Claus did much to diminish the importance of regional figures of the same type, and Mark Connelly argues in an essay in his book about filmic Christmas, “Cinema has done more than any other medium to promote this message [Santa as an American] and ensure its ascendancy over other interpretations” (116). In this essay, he looks at depictions of the American Santa Claus in the two versions of Miracle on 34th Street and (an admittedly beloved Christmas film to yours truly), The Santa Clause. (I personally think Connelly’s interpretations can be taken with a pinch of salt as he seems to have misconstrued much of the obvious meaning of the latter film!)

The Santa Clause

Connelly notes that in both versions of Miracle on 34th Street, the original from 1947 and the remake from 1994, the actor playing Kris Kringle has been British. The films arguably take the characters and make Santa an honorary resident of New York City. “The film shows the genuine Santa, living in New York, comforting a little foreign girl by showing a great heart and a great desire to do the right thing by the children of the world” (118). Restad notes that Miracle on 34th Street seems to rehash familiar themes rather than adding anything new. “Kris Kringle’s line in the movie, ‘Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind,’ could have easily come straight out of William Gilmore Simm’s southern story, ‘Maize in Milk,’ written in the 1840s” (166).

Connelly makes the good point that faith is important in these films and that the Santa Claus characters espouse the tenets of Christianity, love and selflessness, but with a figure “who has become increasingly secular” (120). All these films, with their connections on the one hand to big American department stores and to massive Elf-generated toy factories in the other, show themselves to be very different in tone to A Christmas Carol. A modern audience needs a “large slice of material happiness” (121). But a “modern” audience has probably existed since before there were films. By Christmas 1898, for example, the (British) Draper’s Record urged all shoppers to buy early to make life easier for beleaguered shop assistants. In late November 1923, according to the (London) Times, the Queen was setting a good example by starting her Christmas shopping early. In 1888, J.P. Robert unveiled his first Santa’s Grotto (see December 16) in his department store. By 1923, “the shop windows everywhere this Christmas show a great advance over former years in the matter of setting and display” (C:aSH 193).

A Christmas Story – department store scene

link Buffalo, NY department store windows

Newcastle (in northern England) probably can claim to be the home of the domestic department store. By Christmas 1909, police had to be called to Swan and Edgar shop in London because the crowds at the windows on the corner of Great Marlborough Street and Regent Street had entirely blocked the road. It was Selfridge[i] who invented the phrase, “only X more shopping days to Christmas.”

Returning to The Santa Clause, the boy Charlie has more understanding and therefore more power than his dad, Scott Calvin. “The flip side of the debate over faith and innocence in these movies is the nature of American society as capitalist, consumerist, acquisitive organism” (122). The 1947 Christmas on 42nd Street seems to include a warning that too much commercialization is a bad thing, and this before the Baby Booming ‘50s! Nevertheless, The Santa Clause for one satirizes the ultra-modern psychoanalyst and “gifts, presents, toys and generosity run wild in these movies, it is a vision every kid will fall in love with” (127).


[i] Selfridge’s is a department store chain here.

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