Since when do we offer toys to children at Christmas?

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 time", some received at Christmas only an orange. 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 we were a child in Athens, at the Ve century BC, we could receive toys at the end of the year, that is to say in February in the calendar of the time. The toys were offered on the occasion of two celebrations, 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 performed in 423 BC.

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.

Ancient Christianity is not at the origin of the gift of toys to children during the feast of the Nativity, the date of which is not fixed until the IVe century, period when December 25 remains in competition with January 6, Epiphany. The sacred character of these festivals would not be well suited to 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 in the XVe century a "modern" father, washing his son's diapers and 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

It's XVIe century that seems to be taking place a fundamental element: sacred donors, external to the family, offer toys to the children, and the 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. Do not believe that the phenomenon is spreading and exists everywhere in the XVIe century, it has just dawned, and sacred givers are far from competing with parents who give their gifts primarily to New Year's Eve. But let's start first with Saint Nicholas and the Child Jesus.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas, Jan Steen.
Jan Steen, Public domain, via Wikimedia

From the first half of the XVIe century, testimonies teach us that Saint Nicholas brought toys and sweets to children, and even Martin Luther, who opposed the cult of saints, noted in his expenses for December 1535 the purchase of gifts for his children and his servants on the day. of the feast 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 through which the toys arrive.

Other Protestant countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, and a region such as 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!

The Feast of Saint Nicholas, R.Brakenburg.
Richard Brakenburgh, Public domain, via Wikimedia

But in the Catholic France of the XVIIe and XVIIIe century, it is the New Year's gifts which are the privileged moment of offerings of gifts for the benefit of the family and the 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 offer 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 XVIIIe century, toy production ramping up, reaching millions of objects per year in the years 1770-1780 as we have shown from the archives. From 1760, the “ Real estate ads, Posters and Miscellaneous notices from the City of Paris ”introduce us to the best toy shops in the capital. A passage of The Children's Friend 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 XNUMXth 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. Its image asserts itself at the end of the XNUMXth century.e century in England, at the beginning of the XXe century in France and will prevail over the former donors because it allows an 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 festival 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.

Michel manson, Historian, professor emeritus in educational sciences, Sorbonne Paris North University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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