If you’re basking in afterglow of Christmas with a new read in hand, you’re part of a long-held tradition.
Gift books spurred the “commercialization” of gift-giving at Christmas 200 years ago. I ran across this intriguing fact in a recent blog on “Literary Hub.” The title of the article caught my attention: “How the book business invented modern gift-giving.”
The article focused on The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. It’s not a new title—it was first published in 1997—but it sounds like my kind of read. I wish I’d discovered it sooner. It explains the social history of our modern Christmas, including the gift-giving part that stresses us even more than hosting the in-laws or persnickety Aunt Gladys.
Wind the clock back to the 1820s—when James Monroe was president. Back then, the American Christmas consisted mostly of feasting and religious activities, and gifts were primarily hand crafted, such as rag dolls, carved play sets, home preserves, knitted scarves, tatted handkerchiefs, embroidered garments and so on. Folks rarely considered buying a gift.
But the publishing industry changed all that. Specially published books were designed to be given to loved ones at Christmas. These Gift Books were typically anthologies, of poetry, fiction, essays and drawings, or even Christmas stories with the contents tailored to appeal to a specific audience. There were Gift Books for children, young men, mothers, abolitionists, even members of fraternal organizations and political parties.
To personalize the Gift Books, publishers provided “presentation plates” on the first page, so that the buyer could inscribe the book for the recipient. You know, make it seem hand-crafted.
Two centuries ago, books made up about half the items advertised as Christmas gifts. Even today, November and December account for the most book sales of the year.
Yes, we still have gift books of a sort. You’ll find them up front at Barnes & Noble, with decorative hard-bound bindings.
Perhaps the real reason books have continued to be popular presents is because they solve what would otherwise be a complex equation of gift giving. A successful gift must give the recipient something he or she wants, but a good gift also sees as a physical token of the bond shared between the give and the recipient. Perhaps a play on a private joke, a shared experience, a beloved hobby or interest. What better solution than a carefully chosen Gift Book?
Books as gifts moved to the forefront just before mail order revolutionized retailing in the 1800s. Tiffany’s Blue Book from the luxury jeweler was America’s first mail-order catalog in 1845. With an ample supply of manufactured goods and reliable delivery by train and U.S. mail, the rest of the world followed suit, making store-bought goods available through Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck, and elsewhere.
Candy box lids, prints by Currier and Ives, and greeting cards by Hallmark and song lyrics, depict scenes of holiday mirth that has given rise to our Christmas ideals. Victorian ideals with decorated Christmas trees and Jolly Old St. Nick evolved when people started gifting books to one another at Christmas time, which is as it should be. There’s nothing so comforting as curling up by the fire with a good book on a cold winter’s night.
Unfortunately, I haven’t read Nissenbaum’s social history, but I should. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I need to get The Battle for Christmas on my reading list, even though it’s past Christmas. If we subscribe to the 12 days of Christmas as the carol suggests, we have until Jan. 6 to celebrate. Epiphany on Jan. 6 is the traditional celebration the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus and their gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh.
Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org