The Wrap on Christmas

Looks at the economic aspects of gift giving during Christmas in the United States. Christmas spending of Americans; Christmas offerings of some department stores.

By PT Staff, published November 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."

--Little Jo in Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

Common lore has it that lavish gift giving has been a seasonal tradition ever since the Magi crossed the sand to celebrate a certain birth in a manger with offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Not so. Gift giving is a relatively modern practice: it was grafted onto Christmas only in the late 19th century, when the growth of American industry began to pump excess goods into the market.

Until then, the holiday was more of a holy day. Most of what Christmas spending there was went towards food and drink, observes professor Russell Belk, Ph.D., of the University of Utah. And whatever gifts were exchanged were largely homemade and centered on necessities rather than luxuries.

Then in 1874, Macy's New York department store created a fantastic holiday season window featuring 10,000 dollars worth of imported manufactured dolls. With that enticing display, mass produced, storebought gifts were suddenly catapulted into fashion.

Still, many Americans had difficulty at first accepting the idea of giving --as personal, or sacred, gifts-items which were manufactured for and sold in impersonal, or profane, stores. To help soothe guilty consciences, department stores started offering special "Christmas" gifts--rather than ordinary stock--for holiday purchase.

As a further sop to nervous souls, merchants also came up with the ultimate Christmas coverup. To hide the manufactured goods, they layered them over with a new notion: decorative wrapping paper. Today, one of the unwritten rules of the holidays is that Christmas gifts must be swaddled in fancy paper before they can be exchanged.