A look at gift giving traditions through history
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The Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia doesn't carry an official title of "Christmas historian," but at the very least he is a walking Wikipedia on the topic of our holiday season.
Beckmann figured a Christmas topic would be good for a presentation after he was asked to fill a December spot on the speaker calendar for the Tri-Cities Exchange Club's weekly meeting.
That was 23 years ago. He hasn't stopped giving an annual presentation since for the club, of which he is a member.
"When I realized how much was written about Christmas, I started getting books on the topic," Beckmann said. "These weren't story books, they were deep (research). And now I have a full bookshelf."
Those books come in handy for Beckmann's presentations, which have also been the source of my Christmas week columns for nearly as many years.
This year's presentation focused on the gift giving tradition of Christmas and how Americans have handled the commercialism of the holiday.
Uncertainty about gifts
The concept of giving gifts for Christmas, and the spirit in which to do so, has been debated and contemplated for decades.
Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" brings charitable giving to light in the opening scene in which the March girls' mother encourages them to not spend money on gifts for each other, but rather buy things for needy families suffering from having loved ones off fighting in the Civil War.
"Gift giving in early America meant simple and homemade gifts," Beckmann said. "Children typically received most of them, as mothers knitted or sewed, and fathers carved out small toys."
A 19th century diary lists some Christmas gifts as a silver slop basin, a gold pencil, and slippers (mostly for fathers).
"I am not sure what a slop basin is, but being a camp counselor in the past, I can only guess what it might be," Beckmann said. "But to have a silver one had to be good."
Retailers get in mix
Decorated store windows and advertising traces back to the early days of Marshall Field's. The company, founded in 1852, became the first of a new breed called department stores. By 1897, display manager Arthur Frasier pioneered window design with his Christmas toy windows, Beckmann said.
"During World War II, a new plan for the Christmas holiday season was revealed with theme-designed windows that spanned the length of State Street," he added. "As you walked from one end to the other, the windows told a story."
F.W. Woolworth provides a good early example of the Christmas economy. When purchasing Christmas decorations from manufacturers in about 1887, one importer got Woolworth to take some his German-made round, glass ornaments.
"Woolworth hesitated, but agreed to the deal if he could be guaranteed the sale of $25 worth of the ornaments," Beckmann said.
In two days, all of the ornaments were sold. "In 1890, he sold 1,500 gross of round ball ornaments," he added.
Use that wrap
As the country moved toward the 20th century, the custom of giving gifts with no wrapping or cover started to fade as well. People began to wrap their gifts, opening the era of children trying to find out ahead of time where mom and dad possibly hid gifts and what might be inside. (Those that Santa wasn't bringing, of course.)
"This year, media is reporting that kids have been using email to hack a parent's account and find out what they bought for Christmas," Beckmann said to illustrate that kids' curiosity about gifts has only intensified.
But in 1902, Wells Fargo, then a shipping company, made the anticipation and excitement of Christmas gifts a staple of the holiday season by supplying printed labels for packages that had the message that became a popular phrase: "Do Not Open Until Christmas."
Not so commercial
Those of us currently bombarded with Christmas commercials as early as October aren't the only ones to complain it has all become too commercialized.
The New York Tribune in the late 1890s suggested its readers not spend money they did not have, and that it was more important to pay bills owed to the shoemaker or the butcher before buying gifts for rich friends.
"I still hear complaints all of the time," Beckmann said. "But I guess I would not be included in that group," he added. "At least it gets everyone thinking about Christmas, and the commercialization is a reality that we can mold to our use."
Reason for season
One of the reasons we give each other Christmas gifts is in remembrance of the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus.
The problem is, historians are not certain who the wise men really were, nor if there were actually three. There could have been two; there could have been a woman as well, Beckmann said.
Most certainly an entourage of several people accompanied the wise men, coming to Bethlehem from the area now known as Iran and Iraq.
"It would have been far too dangerous to travel 1,000 miles over terrain infested with bandits," he added. "It kind of ruins our Christmas cards that just show the three traveling."
The wise men probably did not arrive at the manger scene either. "They arrived at least a couple of years after the birth of Christ, who would have been moved from the manger by then," Beckmann said.
Without the visit and the gifts, however, Joseph and Mary may not have had the money needed to flee to Egypt when King Herod ordered all of the Jewish children 2 or younger slain because of his fear of a newborn king.
Enjoy the holiday
Whatever your plans are for Christmas, here's to hoping everyone has a safe and happy holiday.
One reader sent me a letter -- yes, a real letter, -- asking for ideas on where to dine on Christmas Eve. I have never gone to a restaurant that night, but have friends who have enjoyed St. Charles Place on the east side of St. Charles or the Turf Room in North Aurora. So, those might be worth looking into.
My next column will be on Dec. 30, when we'll take a look at the key places and faces we were talking about in 2015.