Why Give Christmas Gifts?

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March 20, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

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. While 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 between 1800 and 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 6th) 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 St. Nicholas Day and New Year’s Day until another member of the group, Clement Clark 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 1822.

Adapted from theatlantic.

Review

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This was an article on Religion.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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38 Comments


  1. MIP: Christmas gifts=Strengthen bond btw Protestantism&asocial capitalism

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    1. It would be a great idea if there is an edit comment option.

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  2. Gift giving and home-focus of Christmas is not a purely modern commercialized invention. Christmas’s family orientated atmosphere dates back to the 1800’s as a way to quell lower class concerns/festivities to beg on the streets into the home so the elite don’t have to be burdened.

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  3. MIP: gifts giving = not Christian faith + converging anxiety of urbanization

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  4. MIP: Critics blame capitalism for gift giving on Christmas. Religion dislikes gifts. tone=neutral

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  5. To avoid poor from celebrating in streets and asking for stuff wealthy created a commercial Christmas

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  6. No prerequisite for gifting in the American tradition and there are no connections to the Christian faith, religious leaders would probably balk at the commercialization of Christmas / practice became popular after gift-giving became a homely ritual / Gift-giving for children started way before the spread of corporate capitalism / Gifting was part of the social changes driven by the elites who wanted to subjugate the working class as they took to the streets for revelry and protest during the long winter of unemployment / Reinvention of Christmas took celebrations away from the streets into the homes/ Some scholars propose that gifting at home was a reinvigoration of Dutch customs in some cities while others mention that the domestication of festivities like St Nicholas Day and New Year’s Day had already taken place before Christmas caught on.

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  7. Author> delineate where the practice of giving Christmas gifts to children come from: concerns of wealthy ppl abt the Christmas celebrations on the street>> bring them to home and family

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  8. MIP: Gift giving = marketing tool
    Tone: Neutral

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  9. Christmas tradition/Gift giving =/= rewards =/= Christian faith
    Christmas = corporate marketing effort + triumph of elites over working class + to prevent protests from the poor + move celebration from street to home

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  10. Commercialization of Christmas = market efforts + a triumph of elites over working class.

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  11. Christmas tradition was transformed to appeal to the elites best interest

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  12. MI: Christmas Origin = Celebration -> Homes + Capitalism

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  13. MIP: Social elites = change Christmas tradition -> new tradition = increase capital/ control

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  14. Christmas contrary to popular opinion was not a gift giving household affair due to corporate marketing. It was established by anxious elites who feared proletarian uprisings during the traditionally out door celebrations of christmas.

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  15. MIP: gift giving created for elites to exert control over poor.

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  16. The tradition of gift giving in Christmas emerged from the actions of the New York elite to move festivities into the home in an effort to reduce quarrel and protests in the streets.

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  17. gift giving = way for social elites to move social gatherings from public to homes

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  18. gift giving = elite control + reduce disruption

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  19. christmas gift giving has become commercialized. History of gift giving created by elite to reduce public gatherings.

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  20. gift-giving = exercise control

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  21. wealthy anxious + moved festivities into homes

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  22. Gifts= response of society’s elites to change xmas from public to private celebration + fear rxn

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  23. domesticating christmas= triumph for upperclass bec street celebrations=social unrest.
    later, this domestication—>commercialization.

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  24. Gift giving = corporate marketing + capitalism + way for elite to exercise control

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  25. Gift-riving rituals = from marketing effort, mostly from elite/middles class exerting control over urbanization. X-mas celeb moved from outside to home in response to protest by working class

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  26. The author is presenting the research he has collected to explain where the practice of giving Christmas gifts to children came from. Gifts don’t primarily serve as rewards for being “nice” or have a clear relation to Christian faith. Some attribute this gift-giving to marketing and some to anxieties of social classes mixing on the streets. There were concerns that people would not want to work during the holidays, so customs to celebrate in the home and on a certain day were established through art.

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  27. christmas gifts origin= marketing + anxiety of urbanization

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  28. Christmas gift giving has historical roots and was used to help people have something during the holiday when agirculture was slow

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  29. MIP: gift giving = control effort to bond religion & capitalism; tone = neutral

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  30. Origin of gift giving= anxiety of social elites + parents + commercialization

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  31. tone = informational, neutral
    MP: origin of gift giving during christmas = social elites trying to prevent riot, partly commercialization and market
    looked upon as ironic^

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  32. This passage informs the audience about the history of gift giving on Christmas. The passage provides the context and the reason behind gift giving in the 1800s and concludes by explaining why it is celebrated on Christmas and not on other days in December.

    Reply

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