The return of the Christmas holidays has led many of us to start looking for toys to give to children, ours, or those of our family and friends. We have often heard it said that “in the old days” some people only received an orange at Christmas . So, toys at Christmas, would it be very recent, and reserved for the richest?
To answer this question, it must be broken down into several points. Since when do we offer toys at the end of the year, and when, for which holidays? Who gave the toys before we created Santa Claus? And why – and how – it became the main distributor of gifts? If we want to see more clearly, we must go back more than two millennia, and redo the course of the offering of toys, from ancient Greece to the present day.
From Antiquity, toys at the end of the year
When a child in Athens, at the V th century BC, could receive toys end of the year, that is to say in February as the time schedule. The toys were offered on the occasion of two festivals, the Anthesteria (Feast of Dionysus) and the Diasies (Feast of Zeus), in memory of these gods who received toys in their childhood. From that time, they were toys of the trade as attested by Aristophanes, in The Clouds , play played in 423 before J. – C.
The little Romans received it in December on a Saturnalia day called the Sigillaria. We played nuts, ancestors of our marbles, during this period. For New Year’s Eve, they are gifts of money that accompany the greetings for the new year, a social celebration and not a family one.
The ancient Christianity is not the cause of children toy gift at the feast of the Nativity of which the date is fixed at the IV th century, when on December 25 remains in competition with 6 January , Epiphany. The sacred character of these festivals would hardly accommodate the frivolity of toys. For the child to become important, it will take long centuries of humanization of the Holy Family which will reduce the gap between the sacred and the profane. Witness the emergence of a cult of Saint Joseph, becoming the XV th century “modern” father washing the nappies of his son and doing the cooking.
During the Renaissance, the end-of-year celebrations gave more space to children, during the feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), that of Saint Nicolas (December 6), and during New Years.
From toys to New Year’s gifts
This is the XVI th century that seems to set up a fundamental element: the sacred donors, outside the family, offer toys to children and parents disappear behind them. We must understand the importance of this fact: by stepping aside, parents relieve children of the burden of recognition, they make a “pure” gift, which expects nothing in return. We are not going to believe that the phenomenon is spreading and exists everywhere in the XVI E century, it has just emerged, and the sacred donors are far from competing with the parents who make their gifts mainly on New Year’s Eve. But let’s start first with Saint Nicholas and the Child Jesus.
From the first half of the XVI E century, testimonies teach us that Saint Nicolas brought toys and sweets to the children, and even Martin Luther, who is opposed to the worship of the saints, notes in his expenses of December 1535 the purchase of gifts for his children and his servants on the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Even in Protestant countries, such as Holland, the cult of this saint persists and four paintings by Jan Steen and Richard Brackenburg, located between 1665 and 1685 bear witness to a family celebration where we already find part of the Christmas rituals: family reunited, shoes in the fireplace by which the toys arrive.
Other Protestant countries, like Germany and Switzerland, and a region like Alsace, make the Child Jesus the donor. Archives in Strasbourg show it as early as 1570, in a sermon by Johannes Flinner, and the city suppresses Saint-Nicolas while keeping the market of 5-6 December before establishing the Christmas market, the Christkindelmarkt, on the place of Cathedral. Pastor Joseph Conrad Dannhauer refers to these gifts to children as “a beautiful doll and the like”, and he attests to the presence of the tree “we hang dolls and sweets on it”, indignant that the children’s prayers are filled with very material demands. The family celebration more secular than religious is not far away!
But in Catholic France of XVII th and XVIII th century, it was the New Year’s gifts which are the privileged moment of gift offerings for the benefit of the family and children. The royal accounts attest to this, like those of Maris de Médicis in 1556, and the testimony of Héroard on the New Year’s gifts received by little Louis XIII. The custom also existed in the petty bourgeoisie, and in Paris, at the end of the year, huts on the sidewalks offered the lust of children small toys and sweets. Thus, the gift of toys for the New Year goes hand in hand with the toy trade, and the latter increases with the progression of sensitivity to childhood.
In the XVIII th century, toy production grows in strength , reaching millions of objects per year in the 1770-1780 years as we have shown from the archives. From 1760, the “ Ads , Posters and Miscellaneous Opinions of the City of Paris” introduced us to the best toy shops in the capital. A passage from L’Ami des Enfants by Arnauld Berquin shows us, on New Year’s Eve, a table covered with toys and brilliantly lit, which is close to the German staging of the New Year’s Eve described by ETA Hoffmann in 1816 in The Nutcracker and the Rat King. Thus a family ritualization of the New Year’s Eve celebration is set up in favor of children, which prefigures the future Christmas celebration.
In the 19th century, many donors
The donation of toys to children remains mainly on the New Year’s Eve, even if Saint Nicolas is present in the north and north-east of France but new donors are appearing, linked to popular cultures, such as the Befana, a witch who comes to the Epiphany, and the Three Wise Men on the same date in Sardinia and Spain. Secular personifications appear, little documented by serious works: Father Janvier for the New Year’s Eve, the Bonhomme Noël or Père Noël in France, the English Father Christmas and the German Weihnachtsmann, who appear before the American Father Christmas from Santa Claus.
He is a chubby little man, endowed with a red houppelande with a white fur lapel, living in the North Pole, very human, serene, reassuring, joyful, bearer of positive, familiar, universal values, which invite everyone to celebrate. Social groups. His image is needed late XIX th century England, in the early XX th century in France and will outweigh the former donors because it allows efficient syncretism.
Its success can only be understood because it is based on the evolution of the child’s place in the family and in society, and on the growth of the toy industry, bolstered by the commercial revolution of department stores. . The New Year’s gifts thus became a commercial toy festival, from the Pont-Neuf market (1815-1835) until the appearance of specialized toy shelves in department stores from 1880.
It was in these years 1880-1885 that Christmas really established itself as a celebration where toys were offered to children, even if the traders aimed at a wider period, including Christmas and New Year’s gifts. Posters, department store catalogs distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies, Christmas displays in their windows, all of this penetrates children’s culture, helping to educate young consumers. There is a democratization of the bourgeois model of consumption, proposed as a new art of living, a “shopping culture”.
The consumption of toys is part of the staging of the religious holiday transformed into a myth, but this commercial holiday does not replace the family holiday, it contributes to it, because without the trade system, the donation system could not develop. . And for the gift of toys to children to become the heart of modern Christmas, we needed a transformation of our imagination, which we owe in large part to German romanticism relayed in France by Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. When Jean Valjean gives Cosette the most beautiful doll in the toy house, it is the child’s pleasure that is at the center of this Christmas.
Author Bio: Michel Manson is Historian, Professor Emeritus in Educational Sciences at Sorbonne Paris Nord University