Klaudia This cultural practice shifted, and people started to

Klaudia Niemczewska

Cultural
Practices of Giving Gifts

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Prior to the 19th
century, there were plenty of celebrations in the winter season in the month of
December, but they were not the same celebrations that lasted throughout
history. In this time of the century, it was historic to celebrate the
commemoration of the birth of Christ on December 25th. What we
didn’t have prior to the 19th century though were Christmas trees,
wrapped presents, Christmas stockings, candy canes, decorations, and all these
types of things that play such a big part of our Christmas culture today.

In the early 19th
century, Christmas time was always more or less celebrated in public. There
were riots in the streets, especially in urban cities like New York. Christmas
in a city like New Work had a completely different fashion style for
celebrating this holiday; partying and misrule was one way of
celebration. (Nissenbaum) In addition, in the early 19th century,
children in schools demanded presents from teachers in which the students
forced the teachers to treat the students with apples and ginger cakes. If
the teacher didn’t show up with treats, they would get locked out of classrooms.

These following stories go to show how giving and receiving presents in the
early 19th century was not a cultural practice celebrated at
Christmas time. In this time of the century, there was a lot of drinking, a lot
of city or village markets where people would come together as one community
for the holidays.  This cultural practice
shifted, and people started to privatize Christmas season in their own homes. The
idea of presents then became something that is in step within this
privatization. The culture shifts from all the community out in the public
square, to now presents being given within the families on Christmas morning.

In
the early 19th century, we see a little bit of evidence from Harriet
Beecher Stowe, who wrote A story of
Christmas, in which she makes the character of the book very concerned
about buying presents for her friends and family. The quote goes “Christmas is
coming in a fortnight… and I have got to think up presents for everyone”
..”Dear me it’s so tedious.” The character of the story recalls that when she
was ten,  “The very idea of a present was
so new” . Not only that we have the evidence of presents becoming a norm, we
also have the rise of Christmas advertisements, and different transactions that
show an increased focus on giving gifts.  

By
the 1870s and 1880s, giving Christmas presents has really blossomed. According
to HistoryToday, the getting and giving of gifts provided a means of grappling
with jarring social change. This meant that every gift had symbolized a meaning
to the person that received it. “Personal gifts mediated the fragile
relationships of an increasingly fragmented society, and charitable gifts
sought at least symbolic solutions to the problems of extreme economic
inequality that threatened social peace and individual con- science.” (HistoryToday)
By the late 19th century, it became a norm to give presents to your
family and close friends.

 As centuries passed by, the cultural practice
of giving gifts on Christmas has played a role in some of the cultural elements
we have discussed in class. One example is that gift giving changed from a
sacred to more of a secular practice. When people fist started this Christmas
practice it was because of the religious meaning and symbolized something more
sacred, and by the end of the 19th and even up until the 21st
century, gifts started to symbolize something much more different. They are
more of a secular practice now. By the end of the 19th century, kids ultimately
thought about presents whenever someone would bring up Christmas. This would be
the time where Santa Claus made his first appearance to the American Christmas
culture. Just like the pictures shown in class during our discussions, we see Santa
Claus appear with presents that are the most important part of Christmas for
the children. The Nast images of Santa show little children praying for
Christmas gifts from Santa (1884).

Another
way that the practice of gift giving has played a role in our cultural elements
can be found in the rich vs. poor practices. In the 19th century, we
hear stories of how children that were born into poor families didn’t receive
presents because of money issues. The little girl from the story says,
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and
others nothing at all.” (Alcott,  1945).

The cultural practice of giving gifts in this scenario goes to show that gifts
were also an important cultural practice during the holidays. Those girls who
weren’t receiving gifts were truly upset, while there were girls that came from
wealthy families that received all the gifts they wanted to.

 

 

 

 

 

Resources

Alcott, Alcott May. The Fireside Book of Christmas
Stories.

depaul.ares.atlas-sys.com/noncas/ares.dll?SessionID=D082000150R=10=10=543955.

Mercer,
Marsha. “Marshamercer.com.” It’s Not Your 19th Century Christmas,
Fortunately — Column of Dec. 17, 2015, 1 Jan. 1970, www.marshamercer.com
2015/12/its 
-not-your-19th-century-christmas.html?m=1.

Restad,
Penne. “Christmas in 19th Century America.” Christmas in 19th Century
America | History Today, Dec. 12ADAD,
www.historytoday.com/penne-restad/christmas-19th-century-america.

 

 

 

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