Unfolding the stockings: Mystery behind Christmas Toys


Christmas has become one of those festivals which has been infused with the materialistic practice of gift-giving. While the children who have now turned into adults have long been slapped with the ‘harsh reality’ that Santa does not exist and even if he does, he has never shown up to them in their entire lifetime. If anything can be known for sure, it is tracing the practice of giving toys to children at Christmas.
One historian Joseph Wachelder in his 2013 paper has traced the origin of gift-giving and in particular, toys for children to early nineteenth-century England. Early nineteenth-century England was when giving toys for Christmas first became a thing.
The story or rather, the history goes like this: Christmas in England before the Industrial Revolution, as Wachelder terms it, was a ‘public, exuberant, turbulent feast’. The celebration of Christmas as a festival was associated with harvesting. Harvest was a matter of celebration. The laborers used to get drenched with the spirit of celebration, marking a good harvest, and the patrons used to make fresh meat and plenty of drink abundant to them.
The Industrial Revolution brought about massive technological changes which also reflected in the socio-economic life of the people. One such outcome was seen in terms of earning the living through wage labor and that brought about a halt to the carnival-style holiday. Christmas had now become a family holiday from a public one. The practice of gift-giving also transformed.
Now, the gifts were for children instead of servants. The natural choice of gifts for children was found in the concept of ‘toys’. However, Wachelder has pointed out that the term ‘toy’ was not how we understand them today. It might be described as any small object which could help children exercise their senses of the imagination, their imitative and inventive power. Thus, the objective of giving toys to children was child development other than gift-giving on Christmas.
The gifts for children were not supposed to be expensive miniature objects intended to be just looking at them but something with which the kids could really play with them. Wachelder also perused the daily newspapers in London between 1800 and 1827 and found out that by 1816, advertisements for children’s gifts had started to show up in newspapers. Those ads had started to talk about Christmas.
Playthings such as ‘New Geographical Game’, ‘Chinese Puzzle No. IV’, Chemistry sets, Kaleidoscopes, Thaumatrope, and Kaleidophone were advertised. Even the merchants had now started to have display windows and heavily decorated their warehouses. These developments marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and the prevalent materialistic practice of gift-giving.
The practice of gift-giving on Christmas is, however, reminiscent of the presents given to Jesus by ‘Wise Men’: Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh. Gold suggests that Jesus was the King of Kings, and Frankincense symbolizes that Jesus is to be worshipped by the people. Myrrh is a perfume used on dead bodies which signifies the belief of Christians that Jesus will suffer and die.
The widely performed custom of hanging stockings comes from the story of St. Nicholas whose symbolism is known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Christkind, Lady Befana or the Wise Men in different parts of the world. The practice of opening gifts also varies around the world. In the Netherlands, children open it on St. Nicholas’ Eve on 5th December, while in Belgium, Germany, Czechia and other European countries, they are opened on 6th December, St. Nicholas’ Day.
In the UK, the US, Japan, and other countries, the gifts are opened on Christmas Day, 25th December only. Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico celebrate the day of Epiphany on 6th January and the gifts are opened on that day.
Rewati Karan