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How Christmas Became a Holiday for Children

During the 1980s, millions of American children pored over the Toys ‘R’ Us catalog, daydreaming about what toys we hoped to receive in a few weeks on Christmas morning. After all, by the mid twentieth century, Christmas—for countless middle-class households with children— had become more or less synonymous with an enormous number of gifts for children in the form of toys and games. Barbie playsets and a myriad of action figures were routinely advertised during Saturday morning cartoons and in Sunday print ads in the weeks before Christmas. We kids of the 80s were sure to tell our parents what toys we “needed.”

We weren’t the first generation with such thoughts, of course. As Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) recounts in the beloved film A Christmas Story—set in 1940—Christmas was the time to strategize on how to receive essential toys—such as a new BB gun—from Santa. The annual bacchanalia of gifts at Christmas meant the holiday had become something “upon which the entire kid year revolved.”

Moreover, the copious number of gifts for children has been just one aspect of how Christmas in many ways has become a holiday focused on children. From Santa Claus to gingerbread houses to countless children’s Christmas movies and picture books, Christmas has become a time for adults to invest enormous amounts of time, money, and energy into amusing and entertaining children as a means of expressing parental affection. 

But, of course, as with so many modern rituals and cultural expressions, the extensive focus at Christmas time on children’s amusement and gifts is a fairly young practice enabled by the wealth and disposable income made possible by modern economies. 

Early Child-Centered Christmas Rituals

Giving toys to children is not new. As noted by Nicholas Orme in his book Medieval Children, baby rattles date at least to Aristotle’s time, and the philosopher himself praised rattles “as a means of allowing children to expend their energy without doing damage.” Orme describes how by the Middle Ages, children had access to a variety of simple toys such as small windmills and spinning tops, which were called by a variety of different names by children with slang such as “prill” and “whirligig.” Girls had dolls—called poppets in those days—which required more imaginative types of play. 

Adults helped children access these toys, and adults produced these toys. Some adults made toys designed to be sold to others at markets. Some may have even been produced via mass production—employing craftsmen (and craftswomen) producing the toys at home for sale by merchants. 

The question remains, however, as to how much emphasis adults of these earlier times put on providing amusements for children, and to what end. 

In his influential book Centuries of Childhood (1960), Philippe Ariès contends that a change to how adults viewed childhood amusements in the late Middle Ages and in the early modern period. Ariès described how by the sixteenth century, Western Europeans had begun to leave behind the large communal festivals of earlier centuries at which children had a role, but were certainly not the focus of attention. This led to a shift in how children were integrated into holiday festivals as well. Evidence provided by Ariès includes the painting “The Feast of Saint Nicholas” produced by Dutch artist Jan Steen in the 1660s. In the scene chosen by Steen,

the grown-ups have organized the occasion to entertain the children: it is the feast of St Nicholas, the ancestor of “Santa Claus.” Steen catches the moment when the parents are helping the children to find the toys which they have hidden all over the house for them. Some of the children have already found their toys. Some little girls are holding dolls. Others are carrying buckets full of toys. There are some shoes lying about: perhaps it was already customary to hide toys in shoes, those shoes which children of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in some countries, put in front of the fire on Christmas Eve? This is no longer a great collective festival, but a quiet family celebration; and consequently this concentration on the family is continued by a concentration of the family around the children. Family feasts became children’s feasts. [emphasis added]

It is significant that this image was created by a Dutch painter. Such scenes were more common in the Dutch Republic where a merchant-focused, bourgeois political economy had transformed the Dutch population into one of the world’s most prosperous. Ariès suggests this painting reflects the “same modern feeling for childhood and the family” that is today reflected in child-centered holiday rituals. Yet, this focus on delighting in children’s play was not universally well received. Many moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cautioned repeatedly against “coddling” children. One etiquette guide cautioned against becoming the sort of supposedly tiresome person “who never talk[s] of anything but their wives, their little children, and their nannies.” St. Jean-Baptists de La Salle (1651-1719) condemned parents for treating their children “in an idolatrous manner” with the attitude of “what the children want, [the parents] want too.” 

As Orme shows, parents in every age felt affection toward their children and generally wished for their safety and happiness. This can manifest itself differently in different times and places, however. In some periods, both ordinary parents and elites regarded facilitating children’s play as not only good for the child, but as delightful for the parents witnessing it. In other times and places, molders of public opinion have viewed such attitudes as prone to excess resulting in “spoiling the child.” 

To modern eyes, of course, the “problem” of spoiling children in the sixteenth century will appear as much ado about nothing. Thanks to centuries of slow capital accumulation, the textile trade, merchant shipping, and other forms of economic progress, England, northern France, and the Low Countries had enjoyed just enough prosperity to give their children “buckets full of toys.” By modern standards, however, the standard of living in even the wealthiest parts of Europe remained far below what would come in the nineteenth century and afterward. In southern and eastern Europe, of course, the standard of living tended to be even lower.

In this period, child labor was also widespread out of necessity. Families often could not produce a comfortable income on just the labors of the mother and father. Farming and artisan families required help from children, and older children often became servants in other households. So, while small children were enjoying the fruits of economic progress, childhood remained much shorter than it is today thanks to the need for children to produce some form of income in the marketplace.

The Victorians Seek to “Preserve Childlike Innocence.” 

Trends toward focusing on children accelerate in the nineteenth century. In her book on children’s literature, Kimberley Reynolds writes that the role of the Victorians in “inventing childhood” has been much exaggerated. Yet, it is also true that during the Victorian period, “the middle and upper classes evolved a more self-conscious and sustained myth of childhood than any that had gone before.” 

Maaike Lauweart adds

the 19th century saw a dramatic change in the image of and thinking about the child and childhood. The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais has famously immortalized the new-formed ideas about children and the child’s culture in his 1886 Pears soap advertisement. The child depicted in the advertisement is a kind of cherub, a beautiful, innocent, vulnerable dreamer that had to be taken care of, washed, dressed, fed and cured. The Innocent Child was very much situated within the pastoral tradition – with its longing for and wish to preserve childlike innocence. The 19th century has been notably phrased the ‘Age of the Child’ by Swedish pedagogue Ellen Key because of its focus on the child and his/her well being, education and health. 

It is remarkable that the nineteenth century might be known as the Age of Child because it is in this same period that we often hear of how countless children were forced to work in the factories—i.e., the “satanic mills.” This, we are told, was brought about by the second wave of industrialization that had begun in the eighteenth century and become far more intense by Victorian times. 

How could anyone call this period a time marked by new concerns for children when so many allegedly were being worked to death in factories? 

The answer lies in the fact that the age of child labor was actually moving quickly toward its own demise by the late nineteenth century. This trend was brought about by the factories themselves. As Ralph Raico notes in his work on the industrial revolution, contrary to the Marxian myth of the working classes being impoverished by industrialization, the truth was that ordinary people were actually enjoying higher incomes and more access to goods and services as the second half of the nineteenth century advanced. This meant that child labor was becoming less necessary to secure a subsistence living, and as the economic lot of households improved, children worked less, at least less hazardous jobs. Many Victorians welcomed the trend. 

This also meant that the falling cost of producing goods and services also made a wide variety of products more affordable.  Markets were responding to Victorian ideals of childhood, and this “helped ensure that children’s goods would expand along with other markets.” In turn, the availability of so many books and toys then reinforced Victorian views of childhood, and these ideas spread as “childhood innocence” became feasible for more and more people. 

Thus, it is no coincidence that the boom in mass-produced goods made specifically for children, as historian Jennifer Sattaur puts it, “coincided closely with the rise of the middle-classes, industry, and capitalism.” 

The Modern-Child Centered Christmas Arrives

For many, this new Victorian, middle-class emphasis on children affected the way they viewed popular holidays as well. The initial impulses reflected in Steen’s “The Feast of St. Nicholas” were ultimately made more common, attainable, and opulent by growing economies in the nineteenth century.  This was all finally translated into its modern form for American audiences by Clement Moore in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” In it, “St. Nicholas” appears with “a sleigh full of toys” with which to fill the children’s stockings. The poem was enormously popular and promoted a “homey, child-centered version of Christmas” that was embraced by many Americans who were themselves enjoying a rapid rise of living standards.

This trend only continued to accelerate into the twentieth century, and it is this image of Christmas that is the source of so much excitement and enjoyment for children and their parents today. Yet the child-focused abundance and leisure we now associate with Christmas was made possible by industrialization, capital, and the hard work of so many generations that came before us.

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