Why children get gifts on Christmas

The Battle for Christmas focuses on the tensions between New York’s elites and its working classes, but during this same period, a middle class began to emerge in New York and other northern cities, and the reinvention of Christmas served their purposes as well. Like their wealthier contemporaries, middle-class families worried about what rapid population growth and expanding market capitalism would do to their children—particularly because an expansion of goods and services on offer was reducing young people’s household responsibilities at a time when alternative pathways to adulthood, such as public education, had yet to emerge.

In response to the increasing uncertainty surrounding this stage of life, urban families that aspired to prepare their children for life in the middle and upper ranks of American society widely adopted new strategies for child-rearing. As work and home became increasingly separated for these families, parents kept children within the home (or at church or in school) as long as possible in order to avoid what many of them perceived as the corrupting influences of commerce on kids’ inchoate moral character. Elites’ efforts to domesticate Christmas aligned neatly with these parents’ interests, for they encouraged young Americans to associate the joys of the holiday with the morally and physically protective space of home.

Meanwhile, even if parents were concerned about commercial influences outside the home, they were not bothered by the idea of letting children’s commodities into it, in limited doses. In the 1820s, an American toy industry began to emerge, and American publishers started producing books and magazines for children. (The first three self-sustaining children’s magazines in U.S. history debuted between 1823 and 1827.)