Ye olde Christmas gifts

There is an ever-narrowing window, it seems like mere hours now, between the moment the clock of commerce strikes the end of Thanksgiving and the start of the “holiday season.” Barely have our over-burdened stomachs digested our preternaturally large turkeys than the elves of CVS, Target and Best Buy come crawling into their respective stores to exchange the autumnal colors for whites, reds and greens. I imagine these brave defenders of mercantilism slinking in under the cloak of darkness, staving off tryptophan as the rest of us lay splayed on couches clutching our stomachs while eyeing the last piece of pie, to furtively haul out the pumpkin and apple flavored everything and heave in the bulk bins of Santa hats and stock endless shelves with gift “suggestions.”

“Christmas has been ruined!” We bark. “Its spirit has been sullied by our lust for commercial grade juicers!”

"Christmas Dream" New York Tribune (New York, NY) December 20, 1908

We do like to harp on. But what if there never was a noncommercial American Christmas to ruin? What if the commercialization we love to hate on is the very thing that brought us the “spirit of Christmas” that we lament has been destroyed? So argues Penne Restad in a Bloomberg article from last year. The American tradition of Christmas first took off within the confines of the home where upper class ladies of leisure took to decorating and indulging in cobbling together “the scraps and slivers of various folk traditions blended to serve a religion of domesticity.” Rituals such as tree decorating and stocking stuffing where then picked up by the press, which published Christmas recipes along with etiquette tips, gift ideas and morality tales of the “true meaning of Christmas.” Publications like Harper’s Weekly also began to develop the version of Santa Clause from a marginal character to the jolly gifting supernatural being we recognize today.

As early as the 1830’s poinsettias were being grown in greenhouses and by the 1870’s Christmas trees were living room fixtures. Woolworths played a role by importing cheap ornaments from Germany while department stores around the country stuffed their displays full of glittering merchandise, pushing gifts on American consumers with unbridled zeal. This Richmond Times Dispatch article from 1916 reported on the “Christmas spirit” on display in the “brilliantly decorated windows…within, the stores are temples of plenty, thronged with devotees. Even the shops which have to do only with humdrum articles of constant necessity and ugly drudgery have been infected with the desire for cheer and beauty.”

As the spirit of commerce and Christmas were created in tandem, so have they continued to grow concurrently. As Restad writes:

“These days, it is a commonplace to say that the economy depends on Christmas sales and that marketing strategies, such as Black Friday, threaten the holiday of yore. True enough. But less often noted is that the market revolution of the 19th century, and the consumer economy it created, made possible and continues to sustain what we mean when we talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas.’”

  • The Evening World (New York, NY) December 3, 1914
    The Evening World (New York, NY) December 3, 1914
  • The Evening World (New York, NY) December 03, 1914
    The Evening World (New York, NY) December 03, 1914
  • The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MO) December 8, 1912
    The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MO) December 8, 1912
  • Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) December 15, 1916
    Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) December 15, 1916
  • "Only 14 days for Christmas Shopping" The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MO) December 8, 1912
    "Only 14 days for Christmas Shopping" The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MO) December 8, 1912

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