Why Children Get Gifts on Christmas: A History

In 1800s New York, the overlapping interests of middle-class families and the wealthy produced a cultural practice that’s still in place today.

An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's. Nast created the image of Santa Claus that endures today. (Wikimedia Commons)

During a week when so many Americans have experienced some combination of joy, rage, and frustration in seeking the perfect holiday gifts for their children, it seems appropriate to pause and ask: Where did the practice of giving Christmas gifts to children come from?

There does not appear to be an easy answer. Gifts do not primarily serve as rewards: Commentators on the political left and right have in recent years asked parents to abandon the “naughty and nice” paradigm that suggests such presents are prizes for good behavior, and indeed historical evidence suggests that proper conduct has not been a widespread prerequisite for young Americans to receive Christmas gifts.

Nor do presents seem to have a clear connection to Christian faith. Some American families have established a “three-gift” Christmas in an effort to link the practice to the generosity of the three wise men in the story of Jesus’s birth, but again no broad historical precedent exists for this link. In fact, religious leaders have long been more likely to decry the commercialization of Christmas as detracting from the true spirit of the holiday than to celebrate the delivery of purchased goods to middle-class or wealthy children. (Donating gifts to poor children is a different matter, of course, but that practice became common in the United States only after gift-giving at home became a well-established ritual.)

Critics of the commercialization of Christmas tend to attribute the growth of holiday gift-giving to corporate marketing efforts. Although such efforts did contribute to the magnitude of the ritual, the practice of buying Christmas presents for children predates the spread of corporate capitalism in the United States: It began during the first half of the 1800s, particularly in New York City, and was part of a broader transformation of Christmas from a time of public revelry into a home- and child-centered holiday.

This reinvention was driven partly by commercial interests, but more powerfully by the converging anxieties of social elites and middle-class parents in rapidly urbanizing communities who sought to exert control over the bewildering changes occurring in their cities. By establishing a new type of midwinter celebration that integrated home, family, and shopping, these Americans strengthened an emerging bond between Protestantism and consumer capitalism.

In his book The Battle for Christmas, the historian Stephen Nissenbaum presents the 19th-century reinvention of the holiday as a triumph of New York’s elites over the city’s emerging working classes. New York’s population grew nearly tenfold from 1800 to 1850, and during that time elites became increasingly frightened of traditional December rituals of “social inversion,” in which poorer people could demand food and drink from the wealthy and celebrate in the streets, abandoning established social constraints much like on Halloween night or New Year’s Eve. These rituals, which occurred any time between St. Nicholas Day (a Catholic feast day observed in Europe on December 6) and New Year’s Day, had for centuries been a means of relieving European peasants’ (or American slaves’) discontent during the traditional downtime of the agricultural cycle. In a newly congested urban environment, though, aristocrats worried that such celebrations might become vehicles for protest when employers refused to give workers time off during the holidays or when a long winter of unemployment loomed for seasonal laborers.

In response to these concerns, a group of wealthy men who called themselves the “Knickerbockers” invented a new series of traditions for this time of year that gradually moved Christmas celebrations out of the city’s streets and into its homes. They presented these traditions as a reinvigoration of Dutch customs practiced in New Amsterdam and New York during the colonial period, although Nissenbaum and other scholars have established that these supposed antecedents largely did not exist in North America. Drawing from two story collections by Washington Irving, their most well-known member, these New Yorkers experimented with domestic festivities on Saint Nicholas Day and New Year’s Day until another member of the group, Clement Clarke Moore, solidified the tradition of celebrating on Christmas with his enormously popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) in 1823.

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.

Postbellum Christmas traditions followed this broader trend by becoming more child-focused, particularly through the reconstructed image of Saint Nicholas. Clement Clarke Moore’s Saint Nick was an elf who was jolly but also a bit scary (as indicated by the narrator’s repeated reminder that he had “nothing to dread”). During the 1860s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast created a new image of Santa Claus that replaced this ambiguous figure with a warm, grandfatherly character who often appeared with his arms full of dolls, games, and other secular toys. One of the earliest publications in which Nast’s Santa figure appeared was the December 1868 issue of the magazine Hearth and Home.

Christmas gift-giving, then, is the product of overlapping interests between elites who wanted to move raucous celebrations out of the streets and into homes, and families who simultaneously wanted to keep their children safe at home and expose them, in limited amounts, to commercial entertainment. Retailers certainly supported and benefited from this implicit alliance, but not until the turn of the 20th century did they assume a proactive role of marketing directly to children in the hopes that they might entice (or annoy) their parents into spending more money on what was already a well-established practice of Christmas gift-giving.

In the nearly two centuries since New Yorkers instigated the invention of today’s Christmas rituals, American families have invested gift-giving and other widely practiced holiday traditions with their own unique meanings. Identifying the origins of these rituals as historical, rather than eternal, reinforces their power to do so.