The Saint Nicholas that Moore presented in his famous poem was not a wholesale invention, but like the other traditions the Knickerbockers borrowed and transformed, he was not a well-established part of New York’s winter holiday rituals. Similarly, his delivery of presents to children aligned with a newly emerging practice in 1820s New York, although the giving of homemade gifts during the winter holidays appears to have begun by the late 1700s. Moore’s poem does not explain why children are receiving presents on Christmas, although they clearly have the expectation of receiving special treats (“visions of sugar plums danced in their heads”).
Understanding why giving gifts to children (and by gradual extension, to adults) became part of this new Christmas tradition requires an expansion of Nissenbaum’s story. The Battle for Christmas focuses on the tensions between New York’s elites and its working classes, but during this same period, a middle class began to emerge in New York and other northern cities, and the reinvention of Christmas served their purposes as well. Like their wealthier contemporaries, middle-class families worried about what rapid population growth and expanding market capitalism would do to their children—particularly because an expansion of goods and services on offer was reducing young people’s household responsibilities at a time when alternative pathways to adulthood, such as public education, had yet to emerge.
In response to the increasing uncertainty surrounding this stage of life, urban families that aspired to prepare their children for life in the middle and upper ranks of American society widely adopted new strategies for child rearing. As work and home became increasingly separated for these families, parents kept children within the home (or at church or in school) as long as possible in order to avoid what many of them perceived as the corrupting influences of commerce on kids’ inchoate moral character. Elites’ efforts to domesticate Christmas aligned neatly with these parents’ interests, for they encouraged young Americans to associate the joys of the holiday with the morally and physically protective space of home.
Meanwhile, even if parents were concerned about commercial influences outside the home, they were not bothered by the idea of letting children’s commodities into it, in limited doses. In the 1820s, an American toy industry began to emerge, and American publishers started producing books and magazines for children. (The first three self-sustaining children’s magazines in U.S. history debuted from 1823 to 1827.) Much of the initial demand for these items reflected parents’ recognition of the instructional power of consumer goods. As an 1824 review of the evangelical children’s magazine The Youth’s Friend noted,
Let the Youth’s Magazine be called his own paper, and how will the juvenile reader clasp it to his bosom in ecstacy [sic] as he takes it from the Post-Office. And if instruction from any source will deeply affect his heart, it will when communicated through the medium of this little pamphlet.
If early-19th-century newspaper ads promoting Bibles as children’s Christmas gifts are any indication, parents during this era seem to have retained a similar focus on delivering spiritual value to their children. After the Civil War, the spread of consumer products in American cities made it increasingly difficult to control children’s access to toys, books, and magazines, so in order to keep young people at home, parents gradually acquiesced to purchasing products intended to amuse as well as instruct their offspring.