Today I participated in two holiday traditions, a Christmas gathering for the Blue Water Shutterbugs Camera Club and the writing of my annual Christmas letter, which I do in lieu of a card. The writing of Christmas greetings and handling out of Christmas gifts are two areas where I recently learned the history of the tradition.
In the early 1850’s the first American made Christmas card was distributed by H. Pease, a printer and variety store owner in Albany, New York. Louis Prang, a German immigrant and printer perfected color printing and introduced a new colorful Christmas card in 1874. Within five years the sales were over 5 million. Popularity grew and Americans began sending cards instead of writing Christmas letters or making personal visits. Cards held their popularity until the 21st Century. The increased use of the internet led to a 60% decrease in the sale of Christmas cards in the past decade. In 1958 the average U.S. family mailed 100 Christmas cards. In 2001 that figure was down to an average of 28 cards per family sent and received. I know I have dropped my card sending down from about 75 to 30, and the number I receive has also substantially declined.
About eight years ago I went back to what I recently learned was the original tradition. Instead of purchasing and mailing Christmas Cards, I created a Christmas Newsletter that gave all the information on my family newspaper style. I use articles and columns to lay out my newsletter for easy reading. The first year I did this I received many positive responses. Friends and family enjoyed getting this newsworthy mailing rather than a purchased card with just a signature inside. Today I wrote and have printed my 2018 Christmas newsletter.
The Christmas party I attended today included a white elephant gift exchange, which is a bit different since it involves the giving of a used item from your home that is no longer of use to you but may be of use to someone else. They are given wrapped, but do not have the giver’s name attached. This provides a festive yet inexpensive way to enjoy the act of giving and receiving gifts.
Gift giving was not always part of Christmas tradition. The act of giving gifts increased from the 1820’s through the 1850’s, when shopkeepers re-shaped the holiday tradition. Prior to that time people gave unwrapped gifts. Then Americans began wrapping the gifts they gave, as a gift hidden in paper heightened the excitement and designated it as a gift. As this grew in popularity gifts from stores, factories and homes of laborers were wrapped in paper that advertised the material status of the giver. The more grand stores used distinctive colored paper and adorned them with tinsel cords and bright ribbon.
Gift giving became a symbol of materialism, as it signified family ties and the importance of the recipient to the giver. In 1856 Harper’s Magazine attached the security of a relationship to gift giving when it stated “Love is the moral of Christmas…What are gifts but proof of Love.” Gifts were given on a declining scale based on a person’s relationship. The best gifts were given to family and close social circles, lesser gifts in descending order of value to relatives and acquaintances. The deserving poor received the least valuable and least personal gifts.
The act of giving gifts was controversial, as some perceived it to be a materialistic perversion of a holy day. Affluence was viewed as a reward from God and charitable gifting as a Christian duty. A rich man could escape condemnation by acting in a generous fashion to help those in poverty. Best and Company had an advertisement in 1894 that suggested while purchasing items for Christmas the shopper should think of Children less fortunate and for them the store suggested “a gift of serviceable clothing” be chosen from a group of marked down goods that “would be more than welcome.”
In today’s society the act of giving to those less fortunate is seen in all aspects of our life, including toy donation boxes in stores, mitten trees, and the annual Salvation Army Red Kettle Drive to gather money for providing meals, toys, and other items to those in need. Over the years I have participated in various forms of charitable giving, including shopping for a needy child and/or family, donating to mitten trees, working as a server at a soup kitchen, donating a stuffed Christmas sock for a designated sex/age child.
As you go through your holiday preparations think about where the traditions came from, jot a personal note in that Christmas card and if you are able, help out a child or family in need. After all, it is an American tradition.