While gift exchanges during the holidays have been around for centuries, what those gifts are and how they are exchanged has changed radically.
“Mumming” was one of the very earliest forms of gift exchanges. The lower classes would sing and or perform street theater outside the homes of the wealthier sorts. In exchange the mummers were often invited inside and rewarded with gifts of food, drink, and sometimes, money. Wealthy merchants and estate owners often gave a lavish party or ball. The staff of the estate or business and their families would be invited by the owner to partake in large amounts of feasting, dinking, gaming, dancing, and other pleasurable pursuits. Sometimes seasonal reminders of the well off’s obligations to the working class would take the form of public broadsides. A mid 1760s blacksmith’s apprentice broadside offered this holiday verse: “This is unto all gentlemen who shoes here, I wish you a merry Christmas, a happy New Year: For shoeing your Horses, and trimming their Locks, Please to remember my New-Years Box.” A Christmas or New Year’s “box” was usually a gift of food, drink, and money to a public servant.
Any sorts of gifts between friends and loved ones tended to be small and of a utilitarian nature. On December 22 of 1769 Joseph Stebbins of Deerfield, Massachusetts paid a dyer for “coolering a pare of Mitts for wife.” On December 29, 1796 Martha Ballard of Maine recorded in her journal that “Daniel Livermore made a present of an Almanack to my son Cyrus.”
As the practice of the wealthy giving gifts of food, drink, and money fell away, the mummers and street performers gradually became a disorderly mob who continued their holiday revelries for their own amusement and sometimes forcibly entered the houses of the wealthy who in turn began to regard them with fear and disgust. A 1719 Boston almanac warning for late December advised “Do not let your Children and Servants run too much abroad at Nights.” A 1772 New York City newspaper noted that during the holidays there was “The assembling of Negroes, servants, boys and other disorderly persons, in noisy companies in the streets.” That gifts of food, drink and/or money were still expected by these groups is noted in an 1805 letter from Albany, NY stating that on account of “the holydays, a considerable number of pennies has been given to boys & servants.” It was the desire to get these rowdy groups off the streets that helped to establish our more modern traditions of gift giving. Since it was young people that often made up a large part of these undesirable groups, most early commercial gifts were targeted towards them. The idea of commercially produced gift giving in America took time to catch on, however, as the new United States was still very much in the mindset of their recent rebellion against England. Even into the early 19th century it was still thought unpatriotic to spend money on frivolous gifts and luxury items. It would be the residual feelings of the holidays being a time to let go and loosen normal constraints that helped legitimize the giving of “luxury “gifts.
The earliest known “Christmas/New Year’s gift” ad comes from Salem, MA in 1806. The earliest New York ads comes from New York City in 1808. One of the two ads published was for a shop offering “four hundred and fifty kinds of Christmas presents and New-Year’s gifts, consisting of toys, childrens and school books, Christmas pieces, Drawing books, Paint, Lead Pencils, Conversation and Toy cards, Pocket Books, Penknives, &c.”
The very first widespread and successful commercial “holiday present” was the “Gift Book”, an anthology of stories, poetry and essays accompanied by illustrations. These were collected and printed in the late fall to be ready for holiday gift giving. From gift books, the passage of years would lead us to the current dizzying array of holiday gift choices that we are bombarded with every year.
December 09, 2021
Last updated: December 9, 2021